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  • China Special Report
  •   Chinese Dissident Forges Own Path

    By Michael Laris
    Special to The Washington Post
    Tuesday, July 28, 1998; Page A11

    BEIJING—The easygoing message that dissident Xu Wenli left on his answering machine gave no hint that he had been taken into government custody. It said simply: "Xu Wenli and He Xintong [his wife] have gone away for a couple of days."

    In fact, security agents had taken Xu for a two-day "vacation" at a riverside resort to keep him out of the spotlight while President Clinton was in Beijing for meetings with China's leaders in late June. In an example of the complex and sometimes baffling relationship between dissidents and authorities in today's China, the plainclothes security agents stationed outside his home had essentially invited Xu on the trip, telling him that if he did not accept, they would not force him to go.

    "They had almost 20 people at my door. It was very hot, and the mosquitoes were biting them terribly. So what they meant was, could I consider their situation," Xu said. "I've always had person-to-person relationships with the people that follow me. In my mind I've never treated them as enemies."

    At the resort, Xu and He hiked and swam -- with two guards at their heels. Xu even considered trying his luck at bungee-jumping but decided that at age 56, having lost 12 years and 47 days of his life locked in Beijing's No. 1 Prison for his democracy activism, he was too old to leap from a 180-foot-high platform.

    But that does not mean Xu is not taking chances. He is trying to do what China's two most famous dissidents -- Democracy Wall campaigner Wei Jingsheng and Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan -- could not: to live free in China as a public advocate of democracy. Both Wei and Wang were forced to choose between long prison terms and exile when they refused to relent from their activism, and they now reside in the United States.

    Xu is trying to change the rules in the delicate dance between dissidents and Chinese authorities. In an interview, he said he wants to show that dissidents are responsible, up-front and patriotic. With his suave manner, Xu has become the most important spokesman for China's democracy movement.

    Only 18 months ago, the portion of the State Department's annual human rights report devoted to China concluded that "all public dissent . . . was effectively silenced by intimidation, exile, the imposition of prison terms, administrative detention or house arrest. No dissidents were known to be active at year's end."

    But this month, dissidents gathered at Xu's Beijing apartment could be heard making urgent phone calls and talking in excited tones about information that had just arrived by e-mail. They were organizing efforts to aid five dissidents arrested in connection with their public effort to register the China Democratic Party in eastern Zhejiang province on the day Clinton arrived in China.

    Xu says the time is not yet right to found an opposition political party in China, contending that, aside from the ruling Communist Party, "in the current situation there is no other power that can govern China. At present, we should respect reality. That means we should push the Communist Party to be more open."

    But Xu said that organizing to aid the detained dissidents in Zhejiang will help lay the legal and theoretical groundwork for the "inevitable" founding of an opposition political party that he says will be "steady, mature, responsible and constructive."

    "The people want democracy and freedom, but they don't want chaos. [Activism] should be open, rigorous, peaceful and nonviolent," he said.

    In that spirit, four dissidents staged a two-day hunger strike in support of the remaining Zhejiang detainees last week. As of Sunday, three of the five dissidents arrested as a result of their attempt to register the China Democratic Party had been released from police custody to a loose form of house arrest, according to Frank Lu Siqing, spokesman for the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

    Since Clinton left China, 21 dissidents have been detained, and all but three have been released, Lu said. Wang Youcai and Lin Hui, from Zhejiang province, are still being held, and last Wednesday labor activist Zhang Shanguang was arrested in connection with his efforts to organize laid-off workers.

    Xu learned about authority after he was imprisoned in 1981 for helping to found an important dissident journal during the 1979 Democracy Wall movement -- named for a wall in Beijing where essays expressing dissent were posted -- and for protesting the arrest of Wei Jingsheng. Prison was a "required course," he said.

    "Special Prisoner 01," as Xu was known, found that treating the guards with respect made his life bearable. In return, they would often leave the door to his cell unlocked so he could use the bathroom or wash fruit before eating it. He played badminton with the younger guards. He treated them like they had a job to do, and they treated him like an important political prisoner.

    But on the occasions when his jailers made a point of humiliating him, even on seemingly insignificant matters, Xu reacted fiercely. Once, a new official broke with past practice and demanded that Xu sit on a tiny stool rather than in a chair for his interrogation.

    "If something violates my dignity, my hair stands on end with rage, and I fight them like a snake," he said, adding that he never did sit on the stool.

    The government tried hard to break Xu by keeping him in solitary confinement for years at time. "I would just try to talk to the people who brought me food and water, otherwise I would lose my voice. . . . I've been doing a lot of interviews now, so I've fully recovered," he joked.

    Xu says that sometimes the smallest sacrifices eat at him most. For instance, he could not attend his daughter's graduation from college in the United States this year for fear he would be prevented from returning to China.

    He, Xu's wife, said their daughter has been hurt by her father's absence from her life. When she was 10 and her father was in prison, she made a boat out of tree bark and string and named it "The Waiting." At Bard College in New York, where she studied sculpture, that theme ran through her graduation exhibit.

    "She's still making all kinds of boats," He said. "She wanted to achieve our dream of being together, but we still couldn't."

    Xu's views have sometimes been controversial. He astonished many by attacking fellow dissident Wei after his exile. Xu sent a barrage of angry faxes to foreign reporters in Beijing saying that Wei was not the father of China's democracy movement and that Wei was not the only dissident who mattered.

    Xu contends that he does not worry about being locked up again. "Dead pigs don't fear being burned," he said.

    Albright Takes Aim

    At Burma, China

    MANILA, July 27 -- Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright confronted several Asian nations at a regional conference today, criticizing Burma for blocking the movements of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and China for jailing dissidents after President Clinton's visit.

    Recounting a conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, Albright told reporters that she noted China had released some prisoners, but "I made . . . quite clear that arresting people is not the way that we see follow-through."

    A senior Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Albright was concerned about the arrests of about 20 dissidents after Clinton returned from a 10-day trip to China early this month. The Chinese delegation did not respond directly to her concerns, but "they couldn't miss it" as criticism, the official said.

    In addition, Albright said political turmoil in Burma poses "a threat to the stability of the region."

    As ministers of 20 Asian and Western countries and the European Union met at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi spent a fourth day today in a car on a rural Burmese highway surrounded by government security personnel. She was blocked Friday from driving to a meeting with supporters but has refused to return to her Rangoon home.

    © Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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