A related article about Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng incorrectly reported th circumstances surrounding his re-arrest last year. It occurred April 1, 1994, days after Wei met in Beijing with U.S. Assistant Secreatry of State John Shattuck. (Published 12/15/95) An article yesterday about relatives of Chinese dissidents incorrectly reported the status of activist Wang Juntao. Wang was released from jail in April 1994 and exiled to the United States. (Published 12/15/95)
The conviction and imprisonment of leading Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng on charges of "plotting to overthrow the government" drew widespread condemnation today and further complicated China's problem-plagued relationship with the United States.
The Beijing Intermediate Court sentenced Wei to 14 years in jail -- the harshest punishment imposed on a Chinese dissident since the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations of 1989.
After being held incommunicado for 21 months, Wei was tried and convicted in just five hours. He has 10 days in which to appeal, but his younger brother, Wei Xiaotao, said "there's not much hope" the sentence will be altered.
Wei Jingsheng, 46, is widely regarded as the father of China's democracy movement and was a strong contender for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. A former soldier and Beijing zoo electrician, he was thrust to prominence by essays he wrote during the 1978-79 dissident poster campaign known as the Democracy Wall movement; since then, he has spent all but seven months in jail. The stiff sentence handed down today -- apparently with the approval of China's top leadership -- was yet another setback for U.S.-China relations after a summer of tension heightened by the unofficial visit of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to the United States and by the Beijing government's subsequent arrest of Chinese American human rights activist Harry Wu. Wu was convicted on spying charges but later expelled from the country, and the two countries pledged in October to try to restore amicable relations.
In Washington, White House spokesman Michael McCurry said the United States would raise the Wei case with Chinese officials and join other nations in bringing unspecified global pressure on Beijing to free Wei. "The Chinese know just how serious this is," another White House official said. At the same time, he suggested that Wei's harsh treatment may be a reflection of a leadership struggle building in Beijing, and thus the Chinese "may be impervious to international pressure."
Wei's imprisonment was the latest in a recent string of repressive moves aimed at critics of China's ruling Communist Party. All but three of nine signatories to a "peace charter" promulgated by Chinese democracy advocates in 1993 are in jail or exile. Two leading figures from the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement who were released from prison a year ago -- social scientist Chen Ziming and student leader Wang Dan -- are back in jail. Chen's medical parole was revoked, and Wang has been in custody without trial or formal charge since May. Other critics of the regime live under virtual house arrest.
At the same time, the Beijing government has adopted an aggressive stance on other political fronts, threatening to invade Taiwan; bullying Hong Kong's local government and press; and installing its hand-picked Panchen Lama, the second-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism, in a continuing bid to subvert the traditional authority of Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
In the Wei case, China brushed aside appeals for his release from numerous world leaders including President Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Nevertheless, many international human rights groups have accused Western governments of failing to speak out strongly enough on behalf of Chinese dissidents, thus allowing the Beijing leadership to believe it has little to lose by suppressing its critics.
"As Wei's case demonstrates, dialogue without pressure is a prescription for disaster," the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch declared in a statement. China, whose economy attracts nearly $100 million a day in foreign investment, also appears convinced that foreign companies, lured by the country's vast market, will continue to do business here regardless of human rights conditions.
Although a court spokesman had said that Wei's trial would be open to the public, only his younger brother, Wei Xiaotao, and a younger sister were allowed to attend, while dozens of policemen prevented uninvited persons from approaching the courthouse. "Go," a police official said in English as he waved off one reporter. "Go far away."
Inside, his brother said, Wei sat with two of his lawyers, whom he had not been able to consult in advance, while three prosecutors presented the case to a panel of three judges. It was the first time family members had seen Wei since he was arrested on April 1 of last year, but they were not allowed to talk with him.
Although Wei appeared to be healthy, he said at one point that he wasn't feeling well, and the court recessed for a half-hour so he could rest in an adjacent room and take some medicine, Wei Xiaotao told reporters.
The government charged that Wei had sought to "develop a plan of action that included establishing an organization to raise funds to support democratic movement activities" -- a plan that allegedly called for operating newspapers, organizing cultural activities and publishing material to "raise a storm powerful enough to shake up the present government," according to the official New China News Agency.
Wei's crimes, prosecutors said, also included seeking financial aid overseas and publishing articles critical of the socialist system and its leaders. Further, they said, he had "surreptitiously organized people both at home and abroad to discuss the so-called struggle strategy and planned to unite various forces of illegal organizations to make preparations for overthrowing the government."
In support of all this, they said, Wei had purchased a 12.5 percent interest in an urban credit cooperative in Beijing so he could set up a "democratic movement" bank. Evidence presented included letters Wei had written from jail in the early 1990s to Chinese leaders, including one to senior patriarch Deng Xiaoping regarding Chinese rule in Tibet. Both letters were later published abroad.
In a 20-minute statement in his defense, Wei said that the purpose of his actions "was to bring forth democracy and make every level of the people more capable of enjoying their own democratic rights and to protect their own interests," his brother said. He also quoted Wei as denying that he sought to overthrow the government.
Wei, who grew up in a privileged household, was a zealous Communist activist until his experiences during the repressive Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 led him to espouse democracy. His outspokenness was said to have provoked the wrath of Deng himself, and in 1979 he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for allegedly disclosing state secrets to foreigners.
He was released in September 1993 but was arrested again seven months later, just minutes after he shared a steak dinner with U.S. Undersecretary of State John Shattuck at Shattuck's Beijing hotel. He has been held without formal charges ever since.
Some China analysts believe that the Wei case reflects a struggle at the top level of government over who will succeed the 91-year-old Deng as the country's paramount leader -- a struggle in which party rivals are eager to demonstrate their toughness in the face of foreign and domestic pressure.
Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor and Human Rights Watch adviser, said that while the Beijing government believes it can disregard international complaints about human rights and other issues ranging from trade tariffs to international arms sales, it appears frightened of a single individual speaking his mind. "It's remarkable that somebody so harmless as Wei, who does nothing but write -- abroad, no less -- should be deemed so dangerous to them," Nathan said.
Other observers said they believe Wei's sentence could be intended as a diplomatic bargaining chip and that the government may be willing to grant him amnesty in exchange for international support on a resolution critical of China now before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. CAPTION: CHINA'S DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT KEY INCIDENTS SINCE COMMUNIST TAKEOVER IN 1949 1957 May to June: Chairman Mao Zedong launches Hundred Flowers Campaign, in which intellectuals are invited to criticize the Communist Party and government. Mao then crushed the movement by wielding critics' candid criticisms against them. 1978 November: Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli and other intellectuals begin pasting up large posters on what came to be known as Democracy Wall in central Beijing. The wall attracted a flood of protest messages and grievances in an outpouring of opinion and dissent, much of it denouncing the repressionist chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), also unleashed by Mao. Democracy Wall was dismantled a year later. 1986 December: University students take to Beijing's streets calling for democracy and freedom of speech, leading to the January 1987 fall of reform-minded Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, accused by hard-liners for tolerating the protests. 1989 April to June: Death of disgraced leader Hu ignites student-led rallies for democracy that draw millions of citizens from all walks of life into the capital's central Tiananmen Square. Communist leadership brands the protests a "counterrevolutionary rebellion," proclaims martial law and finally uses the army to crush the demonstrations on June 4 with heavy loss of life, once again dashing the hopes of millions for democratic change. Another Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, is purged for "dividing the party" and sympathizing with students. After June 4: Tiananmen Square protest leaders rounded up and convicted in a series of trials lasting several years. Those imprisoned include senior Communist Party official Bao Tong, intellectuals Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, branded by the government as "black hands" behind the demonstrations, and student leader Wang Dan. Several dissidents flee into exile. Since 1989 Dissidents emerge every year in advance of the anniversary of the June 4 crackdown, braving police harassment to call for a reversal of the official verdict on the Tiananmen protests and freedom for imprisoned activists. Many have been arrested and imprisoned. Source: Reuter CAPTION: A protester is caught between fellow demonstrators and soldiers near Tiananmen Square in June 1989. CAPTION: Mao Zedong CAPTION: Hu Yaobang CAPTION: Wei Jingsheng CAPTION: DISSIDENT JAILED; Hong Kong protesters show support for Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, who received a 14-year jail sentence in Beijing. (Photo ran on page A01) CAPTION: Chinese Dissident Sentenced: Police block foreign journalists from Beijing courthouse where leading dissident Wei Jingsheng was convicted of plotting to overthrow government and given 14-year sentence. (Photo ran on page A01) (Photo ran in an earlier edition)