A Chinese court sentenced two leaders of the country's first openly declared opposition party to lengthy jail terms today, an indication that Beijing is taking advantage of nationalist sentiment triggered by NATO's errant bombing of its embassy in Belgrade to clamp down further on dissent.
The No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing sentenced Zha Jianguo to nine years in prison and Gao Hongming to eight years on charges of subverting state power, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. Zha, a former liquor factory manager and magazine publisher, and Gao, a former Beijing city official who served two years in jail after the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations, were arrested on June 29.
This brings to nine the number of dissidents who have been sentenced to prison terms of up to 10 years since the May 7 bombing. Lu Siqing, director of the human rights information center, said he believes that as many as 20 more dissidents, including 13 other members of the opposition China Democracy Party, will be sentenced by the end of the month.
The current crackdown has been overshadowed by another drive to suppress a widespread, well-organized spiritual movement called Falun Gong. Thousands of people have been detained in that campaign, but there have been no reports that any of them have been convicted of any crime.
The China Democracy Party goes more to the heart of China's fears than Falun Gong--both of which have been outlawed--because the latter group had no clear political agenda. While the crackdown against Falun Gong has been aired by every media outlet here, the smashing of the China Democracy Party--the first attempt to form an opposition group in Communist China--has been as quiet as it has been systematic.
Both campaigns have a common purpose: to rid China of any signs of dissent before Oct. 1, when China will celebrate 50 years as a Communist country. Billions of dollars are being spent to prepare for the festivities.
Dissidents in China founded the China Democracy Party in June of last year and attempted to register the party in 14 provinces and cities, a sign of strong support for the idea of an opposition group. In late November, the Beijing government launched its initial effort to crush the party, jailing dozens of people for terms as long as 13 years.
One of those sentenced in the first crackdown was Xu Wenli, a veteran dissident. His wife said last week that Xu, who is serving a 13-year sentence, is suffering from swollen hands, ankles and abdomen, indicating possible heart or liver problems.
The latest campaign to suppress the party began after the embassy bombing, which touched off a round of massive government-organized anti-American protests that tapped into widespread popular outrage.
NATO has strongly denied Chinese charges that the attack, which killed three Chinese citizens, was deliberate.
In a series of editorials, the state-run media equated political dissidence with being pro-American and Western-style democracy with treason--thereby laying the ideological foundation for a new campaign to crush dissent.
As a result of the Belgrade bombing, China also suspended a dialogue with the United States on human rights. At the same time, U.S. officials attempting to improve ties with China have soft-pedaled human rights questions in contacts with Beijing.
Within weeks of the bombing, more than 200 Chinese dissidents from 12 provinces had been detained. As of today, 35 remain in custody, Lu said.