BEIJING — POLITICAL prisoner Qi Dafeng lacks the prerequisites for winning his freedom in China soon: fame and international connections.
While China releases prominent political activists to impress American critics and Olympic officials, Mr. Qi and thousands of other dissidents remain under detention and unnoticed.
In recent weeks, Beijing has freed Wang Dan, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and some other well-known prisoners as a gesture to placate President Clinton, who has threatened a tougher line on Chinese human rights abuses, and to convince Olympic planners to hold the 2000 Summer Games in the Chinese capital.
Arrested with two others last September, Qi, a 28-year-old democracy activist, is the only one of the three still detained. The most famous of his colleagues, Shen Tong, was held in a Beijing guest house and, under pressure from US congressmen, released and deported to the United States in October.
Mr. Shen, an outspoken leader of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, is now a graduate student in Boston and heads the US-based Democracy for China Fund.
The other activist, Qian Liyun, was held with Qi in the Tongxian detention center on the Beijing outskirts for three months but later freed. The wife of 1989 activist Xiong Yan, now in exile in the US, Ms. Qian has been given a passport and is waiting to join her husband.
But Qi, who served 21 months in prison for mobilizing students in the port city of Tianjin in 1989, now serves out a second two-year sentence in a reeducation-through-labor camp in Anhui Province, where inmates work in an underground coal mine. Friends say he has been writing letters and going without food to protest his incarceration and draw the attention of Beijing authorities.
"This is a deliberate infringement of my rights," Qi protested in a prison letter of appeal obtained by the Monitor. "This is deliberate persecution against me."
Chinese activists and international human rights monitors say that China maintains its tight lid on political expression despite some positive gestures to quiet world outcry.
In a report issued this week, the human rights group Asia Watch detailed the arrest of 40 Chinese during the last year for their alleged involvement in democratic activities. They included members of five underground democratic organizations.
Noting the recent release of some prominent prisoners, Asia Watch said, "These steps are welcome." But for the government's "smile posture" to pay off, the group said, officials must "begin to make a real dent in the huge backlog of political prisoners' cases."
Qi's prison letter underscores the plight of thousands of Chinese, known but to their families, lost in the gulag of prisons and work camps.
Although he failed to win the international acclaim of many Beijing students in 1989, Qi's friends say the leader organized 300 students who rode their bicycles to Beijing from Tianjin and later called a three-day hunger strike at the Tianjin railroad station to support the Tiananmen Square demonstrators.
After getting out of prison, the graduate student was expelled from Nankai University in Tianjin, married, and began working as a trader along the Chinese border with Russia.
However, Qi again became active last summer when Shen, the Boston-based leader who fled China shortly after the brutal military suppression in 1989, answered Beijing's call for exiled students to return.
Arrested again just as he was poised to launch a Chinese chapter of the Democracy for China Fund at a Beijing press conference, Shen now is blamed by many in the dissident community for exposing activists who remained at home.
Caught with Shen and a letter of appointment to the Democracy for China Fund, Qi was sentenced to two years in the labor camp by security authorities, who claim he "refuses to repent and holds onto his reactionary stand" and "actively took part in the antigovernment activities of Shen Tong who returned to China from the United States."
Described by his friends as "a man of few words," Qi has nonetheless written lengthy protests, citing legal abuses in his incarceration and claiming that Beijing security officials failed to list his crimes, issue a formal legal decision, and allow an appeal.
Contending that the activists were within Chinese law in seeking to establish and register Shen Tong's organization in China, Qi takes issue with the government charge "that I refuse to repent and hold onto a counterrevolutionary stand. Antigovernment activities is a term fabricated against our legitimate activities."
Frustrated by the official stonewall, Qi went on a four-day hunger strike last December before security officers forced a tube for fluids into his stomach, friends say.
The once burly activist has lost weight, is weak and constantly administered fluids. The father of a one-year-old, Qi is allowed a visit by only one family member every month.
"No one ever makes an appeal for Qi," says a friend who also served time in prison. "Tell Shen Tong if you see him that our only blame is that he should not have exposed one of our best friends, who is suffering."