Why China is keeping Wang Dan's punishment a big secret

In Peking few have heard of dissident's 11-year-jail term, reports Teresa Poole
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The Independent Online
Peking - While the rest of the world was criticising China for locking up a young dissident, ordinary Chinese people yesterday were left in the dark about the 11-year jail sentence passed on Wang Dan for "plotting to subvert the government". The authorities have ordered a news blackout on the trial, except for one report in China's only English-language daily newspaper.

On Peking's busy Wangfujing shopping street yesterday afternoon, not one of a dozen people stopped at random had heard of the trial or the sentence on 27-year-old Mr Wang. Three students from the Academy of Arts were surprised by the news. Li Ruohui said: "It's really not good. He is still so young. What will he do after he is released, he will be nearly 40?" His companions agreed. "It is too severe," one said.

People were confused about why Mr Wang had been put on trial. His name is still well known because of his role as a student leader in the spring 1989 pro-democracy protests in the city. So, everyone assumed this latest sentence must refer back to Mr Wang's 1989 activities.

It is not generally known that Mr Wang served three-and-a-half years in jail for his 1989 role, and was released in February 1993. According to the court verdict, he used the following two years to attempt an overthrow of the government, allegedly through writing newspaper articles for the foreign press and contacting exiled dissidents in the United States.

The fact that most Chinese people still identify Mr Wang with the June 1989 protests probably explains why Chinese newspapers and the broadcast media did not report Wednesday's verdict. In contrast, when China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, was sentenced last December to 14 years, the verdict and punishment were announced in detail on the that evening's maintelevision news, and recorded in many newspapers. But Mr Wei played no part in 1989, as he was in jail at the time.

The government knows that Mr Wang's case is potentially much more sensitive, because the student leaders enjoyed widespread support from the local population in 1989. A woman in her forties in Wangfujing, when told about the trial, yesterday said: "It's pitiable, pitiable. He's too young." Mr Wang has been locked up for all but 27 months since he was 20.

Western countries have lashed China for the harsh sentence, but Peking knows it is unlikely to face any practical censure. A Foreign Ministry spokesman yesterday said that Mr Wang's case "has nothing to do with the issue of human rights . . . I don't think the case of Wang Dan will have any effect on Sino-US relations."

In Washington, the White House said it was "deeply concerned" by the verdict. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, will visit Peking later this month as planned, but will raise the cases of Mr Wang and Mr Wei with his Chinese hosts. The department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said that isolating China would not have a positive effect on human rights.

The Foreign Office in London was "dismayed" by the heavy sentence, and France said it was as "shocking" as Mr Wei's jail term. But Europe seems resigned to the fact that neither threats nor quiet diplomacy will have much impact on human rights in China, and risk jeopardising business deals.

In Hong Kong, where sovereignty is to be transferred to China next June, the Governor, Chris Patten, said: "I recognise the very considerable concern that many people in Hong Kong . . . feel about a sentence imposed on a young man for activities which in most places, including Hong Kong, would be entirely legal." The paucity of evidence on which Mr Wang was convicted has kindled fears of curbs on freedom of speech in Hong Kong after next June.

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