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Tiananmen anniversary opens season of paranoia

Punishment may await those detained this year, many of whom have called for political reform despite earlier jail sentences
It is that grim time of year again in China. Courageous people sign petitions, the toll of political activists detained by the police rises daily and families are torn apart. Over the past 10 days, the name-count of people taken into custody, questioned or who have disappeared has risen to 15.

During the run-up to the 4 June Tiananmen massacre anniversary, China reverts to being a visible police state. At its most ludicrous, innocuous public gatherings are stopped: on Monday night a jam session at a Peking club featuring a visiting student jazz band from Indiana's Purdue University was cancelled by security officials. Tiananmen Square, the university campuses, and the embassy areas are crawling with plain-clothed police.

At its most severe, this is the season when political activists disappear into police custody, often to be sentenced without charge or not heard from again. For a while, the international media focus on the crackdown. But Chinese names all start to sound the same to Western ears. So what did happen to all those people detained this time last year?

The crackdown started much earlier in 1994, in response to increased dissident activity before President Bill Clinton's decision on China's Most Favoured Nation trading status. At the beginning of March last year two significant documents were released: a petition to the National People's Congress urging greater workers' rights, and the founding charter of the League for the Protection of Working People. Together they had 120 or so signatories. A third document on human rights was signed by seven prominent intellectuals, led by Xu Liangying.

Dozens of dissidents and human rights activists in Peking and Shanghai were rounded up between March and June last year. To illustrate their fate:

n Xiao Biguang, a university literature professor, and Yuan Hongbing, a university law lecturer, have both been detained for more than a year without being charged or tried

n Zhou Guoqiang, a lawyer and founder member of the League; Bao Ge, a teacher at the Shanghai Medical School; Dai Xuezhong, manager of a wholesale drinks business; Li Guotao, computer businessman; Zhang Lin, physicist; Yang Qinheng, businessman; Yang Zhou, a veteran dissident. All sentenced without charge or trial to three years "re-education through labour"

n Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous dissident, has been held without charge since 1 April 1994, out of contact with his family. His assistant, Tong Yi, was sentenced without trial to two-and-a-half years' "re-education through labour".

Similar punishment may await those who have been detained this year, many of whom have persisted in calling for political reform, despite earlier jail sentences. Over the past 10 days, two petitions have been issued by activists. The first, written by Xu Liangying, the 75-year-old scientist who penned the human rights plea last year, was an eloquent appeal for tolerance and the release of political prisoners; it was signed by 44 other academics, intellectuals and activists, including several eminent scientists. The second was an open letter to parliament calling for China to establish the rule of law, with more than 50 signatories.

Most of those detained so far have signed one or both of these documents. Yesterday there were two new detentions. Sha Yuguang, an accountant and veteran democracy activist from the late Seventies, and Gou Qinghui, a theology lecturer and wife of the detained Xiao Biguang. Mr Sha and Ms Gou have signed a third petition calling on the government to learn from June 1989 and move towards democracy.

What must worry the government most is that some of the names from previous protests are reappearing this year, suggesting an enduring network of dissident voices. Liu Nianchun was a principal sponsor of the League last year but was released in October 1994. This year he was one of the 45 signatories to Professor Xu's petition. Mr Liu, 47, was detained by Peking police on Sunday.

Professor Xu told AFP news agency the police had targeted petitioners who had already been in jail, because "they would not dare to touch" venerable intellectuals.