Peking puts reform leader back on trial

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The Independent Online
Back in the heady spring of 1989, when Peking's students believed they were about to change China, a skinny youth with thick black-rimmed spectacles was a common sight on the world's television screens. Wang Dan, a history undergraduate at Peking University, did not fit the stereotype of a flamboyant figurehead for China's pro-democracy movement. But today, he will prove his persistence, as he goes on trial in Peking's Number One People's Intermediate Court charged with "plotting to subvert the government".

After the army's bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters in June 1989, most prominent student leaders were spirited abroad. Mr Wang, number one on the government's "most wanted" students list, was less lucky. He was arrested and spent three and a half years in jail.

By the time he was released, in February 1993, China's economic boom was underway. Mr Wang pressed on with calls for political reform and human rights. The response was predictable; whenever a sensitive anniversary came around, or an important American diplomat was in town, Mr Wang would be banished to the provinces or detained by the police. In between, he gave interviews to foreign journalists, and wrote articles for the foreign press. He was refused permission to return to Peking University, so he started a correspondence course in history in 1994 at the University of California. That is likely to be produced in court today as evidence of "collaborating with overseas subversive forces".

In March 1994, Mr Wang wrote to the National People's Congress outlining his campaign for human rights. "I do understand that in the current political environment, to hold a dissident opinion involves risk. I am prepared to be cracked down on by the security bureau or other government agencies. But I have no regrets. I believe what I do is for justice," he wrote.

By December 1994, two unmarked cars were stationed outside his family's apartment block, and police on motorbikes would follow him whenever he went out. Mr Wang tried to sue the Peking Public Security Bureau for harassment. A few days later, sitting in the reading room of the Peking library, he was warned: "We will beat you to death if you go out again."

Early in 1995, Mr Wang's fate was probably sealed. He joined the board of directors of Human Rights in China, the New York-based pressure group, and in a Hong Kong newspaper he wrote that the "negative sentiment building up in society" had reached "dangerous proportions". Two petitions followed, one calling for human rights and the other asking the government to re- assess the verdict on the 1989 protesters and to release those still in jail.

On 21 May 1995, Mr Wang was taken into custody and has not been seen again. Family members were denied access until two weeks ago.

The government might have waited until next month's visit by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was completed but opted for a high profile court case instead. The point of today's trial is to show the world, and particularly the US, that Peking no longer pretends to care what the rest of the world thinks of its human rights record.