President Bill Clinton denounced the arrest and warned that it could threaten US-Chinese ties. 'We want a constructive and strong relationsip with them but the observance of basic human rights is an important thing to us,' he said.
The detentions coincide with the start next week of the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress, its rubber-stamp parliament. Six dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng, are believed to have been detained in a co-ordinated move across the country. Mr Wei, an activist from the Democracy Wall movement in the late seventies, spent more than 14 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement. He was released last September days before the International Olympic Committee voted on whether Peking would host the 2000 Olympics.
He was picked up by police yesterday morning and later in the day telephoned a colleague to say all his appointments should be cancelled for the next few days. During the past six months, despite his prison ordeal, Mr Wei has been a persistent critic of the Chinese government. In recent weeks he had been warned by public security officials that he risked re-arrest if he continued to meet foreign reporters.
The timing of the crackdown will have stunned US officials. The round-up started while its human rights envoy, the Assistant Secretary of State, John Shattuck, was still in China. On Wednesday, he said he had held 'intensive, serious and business-like' discussions with senior Chinese officials and that, while China must make further human rights progress, some improvements had been made.
In June, President Clinton and Congress must decide whether enough progress has been made on human rights for China's Most Favoured Nation low-tariff trade status to be renewed.
Robin Munroe, a China specialist for the New York-based human rights group, Asia Watch, said: 'This is Peking's answer to Shat tuck's upbeat appraisal . . . They are almost triumphantly calling (President Clinton's) bluff. They are confident there is no bite to his bark.' He said there should be a 'radical reappraisal' by the US of the 'so- called enhanced' human rights dialogue. During his visit, Mr Shattuck had dinner with Mr Wei.
Mr Christopher is due in Peking next Friday and it had been thought China might provide a sweetener for his visit. This week Peking took the unprecedented step of inviting five US journalists to visit a key dissident, Liu Gang, in his prison in Liaoning province.
Yesterday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed the
detention of three dissidents, Zhou Guoqiang, Wang Jiaqi, and Yuan Hongbing. Mr Zhou was a signatory of the recent 'Peace Charter' and has acted as a lawyer for other dissidents. Mr Wang is a postgraduate law student and activist. Mr Yuan, who was detained while in Guizhou province, is a law professor. Human rights groups were concerned the first two were accused by the ministry of having 'violated China's criminal laws'.
Wang Dan, one of the most prominent student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen movement, said he had been detained on Thursday for 24 hours. Asia Watch said Qian Yumin, a labour activist, and Bao Ge, a medical researcher, had both been detained on Thursday and were presumed still to be held. Some other activists in Shanghai could not be contacted yesterday.
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