Eight foreign Greenpeace activists are expected to be deported to Hong Kong today after Chinese police swooped on an anti-nuclear protest in Tiananmen Square. It was the environmental group's first action in China and, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, was designed to spotlight the country's nuclear-test programme.
Two dozen uniformed and plainclothes officers descended on the group within a minute of them unfurling a 15ft banner in Chinese and English reading "Stop All Nuclear Testing". The protest took place at one of the most sensitive spots in Peking, just by the huge portrait of Mao Tse-tung at the north end of the vast square, where pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in June 1989 before the crackdown by the army.
The police grabbed the yellow-and-black banner and snatched smaller signs. The Greenpeace team and eight foreign journalists who had witnessed the protests were bundled into a bus and taken away, but some Greenpeace members who were handing out leaflets to the public evaded capture.
Speaking before she took part, the Greenpeace France director, Penelope Komites, said: "This is our first action in China. We had never done something in China, so we felt it was time we took action."
The eight activists, including two cameramen hired by Greenpeace, were held for several hours before being taken to a hotel. The German foreign ministry said they had been released following representations by the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, adding that they were expected to be deported to Hong Kong today. Three of the activists are German, including the head of Greenpeace Germany, Thilo Bode, who becomes executive director of Greenpeace International next month. The journalists were detained for five hours and had to sign a "confession" before being freed.
It is only two weeks until Peking plays host to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Some 35,000 women are taking part in the associated Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Forum, among whom are campaigners from groups which would not normally be given visas by the Chinese. Previous NGO forums at UN conferences have seen many lively public demonstrations, and Peking's record on human rights issues will encourage delegates to make their presence felt next month.
Chinese fears about "public order" are widely believed to be the main reason for the sudden announcement in April that the NGO forum was being shunted from central Peking to the outlying town of Huairou, 30 miles away. The Governor of Huairou County, Zhao Yuhe, yesterday warned: "Any activity which is against China's law will be forbidden."
Greenpeace's ability to bring members into China unnoticed and assemble them in Tiananmen Square suggests that the authorities will have a difficult job keeping tabs on the many foreign groups next month. Apart from Mr Bode and Ms Komites, the Greenpeace team included Anne Dingwall, a British board member, and senior members in the other declared nuclear-weapons states, Russia and the US.
The Greenpeace action coincides with an international outcry over French plans to conduct a series of tests at the Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific starting next month. At the weekend, China's President, Jiang Zemin, told a Japanese newspaper that his country would continue nuclear testing until a test-ban treaty comes into force, perhaps next year. In a prepared statement, Mr Bode said: "By conducting nuclear tests now, both China and France threaten to hijack the growing momentum towards a global ban on nuclear testing."
China is expected to conduct a number of tests before then, arguing that it has held far fewer than any other nuclear state. Peking's last test was in May at the Lop Nor site in western China, and it is widely believed to be planning another in the next few weeks.
Damon Moglen, a Greenpeace spokesman, said: "China is preparing an imminent nuclear-weapons test and we are calling on the Chinese government to join with the other countries around the planet in taking every effort to stop nuclear testing".
n Geneva - Ching Lee Wu, wife of the detained Chinese-American human- rights activist Harry Wu, has asked Hillary Clinton to boycott the UN Women's Conference next month. If the US First Lady did take part, she said, Peking could use her visit to embarrass Washington.