Defiant China detains leading dissident: Chinese queue to view Chairman Mao at site of anti-democracy massacre

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CHINESE police confirmed yesterday that they were still holding the country's leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng, whose whereabouts had been in doubt for four days. He was being questioned on suspicion of 'new criminal offences', they said, without giving details of possible charges or where he was being held.

Mr Wei's latest detention reflects an increasingly defiant attitude on the part of the Chinese authorities towards international opinion. He was held for more than 24 hours in a Public Security Bureau guesthouse early last month after meeting the US Under-Secretary of State for Humanitarian Affairs, John Shattuck, and was pressed to leave Peking during the subsequent visit of Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State.

The dissident went to Tianjin for four weeks, and was arrested when he attempted to return to the capital on Friday. Later the authorities implied that he had been questioned and released, but his family and friends said they had heard nothing from him. Yesterday's admission that he is still in detention is sure to renew pressure for China's Most Favoured Nation(MFN) trading privileges in the US to be withdrawn unless it improves its human rights record, but Peking appears to have decided that it has nothing to gain from making concessions. Chinese leaders refused to budge on this issue when they met Mr Christopher last month.

Yesterday was Ching Ming, the day on which the Chinese honour the dead, and the authorities were on alert for any attempt to commemorate those killed in the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Peking. A young man who tried to lay a wreath in Tiananmen Square was quickly hustled away, police ordered at least one dissident to stay at home and another was beaten and briefly detained. Plainclothes police, many carrying cameras, patrolled the square in large numbers.

Mr Wei, 43, a former soldier and electrician at Peking Zoo, appears to pose a particular threat to China's Communist leadership, thanks to his outspoken refusal to be cowed by more than 14 years in jail and his impeccable working-class credentials. His boldness has helped to revive the country's dissident movement, and some of his words are sure to have reminded the authorities of the conditions which led up to the Tiananmen demonstrations nearly five years ago.

Mr Wei has urged dissidents to get in touch with ordinary workers and peasants and speak out on their problems. It was the alliance of students demanding political liberalisation and workers protesting at inflation that convinced the leadership that it had to crack down in 1989. Given the choice between what it sees as unconvincing American threats of trade sanctions and the danger of losing power entirely, the government is likely to opt for repression.

Mr Wei has been an irritant to the authorities since the days of the 'democracy wall' protests in 1978, when he called for a 'Fifth Modernisation' - democracy - to be added to those espoused by the Communist Party. This earned him a 15-year prison sentence, of which he served all but six months. He said he had been beaten in jail, had suffered 'mental torment', lost most of his teeth and developed heart and lung problems.

Stung by the dissident's attacks on him as a despot in the tradition of the emperors, the country's supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, is said to have taken a personal interest in the conditions of his imprisonment. Mr Wei was undeterred, writing critical letters full of Peking slang from his prison cell to Mr Deng and other senior figures.

In one letter which demonstrated his strong Chinese nationalism, he told President Jiang Zemin that the government's economic reform policies were endangering the country's self-sufficiency. 'Your politics is one of enslavement to things foreign, one which worships foreign things,' he wrote.

Since his release last year Mr Wei has ignored orders to stop giving interviews and writing for foreign newspapers. Recently he warned foreign businessmen that they would harm their own interests if they failed to help democratic reform, leaving China's fate 'in the hands of reactionary autocrats or other unpredictable elements'.

(Photographs omitted)