Pressure China on Rights

By , former deputy editor of the Beijing-based newspaper Economics Weekly, is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. This piece was written with Ann Scott Tyson, a Monitor staff writer previously based in Beijing.

PRESIDENT Clinton has forcefully reaffirmed Washington's commitment to human rights in China, even while seeking to mend ties with Beijing.

In an unexpectedly long session with Chinese Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin in New York Tuesday, Mr. Clinton voiced strong United States concern over the cases of several Chinese political prisoners. He specifically mentioned my close friend and colleague, dissident intellectual Chen Ziming, who is being held by Beijing in a blatant test of US resolve on human rights.

Surprisingly, many American officials have told me privately they feel helpless to influence the dismal state of human rights in China. My own experience as a Chinese political prisoner proves, however, that direct, high-level US pressure can help free individual dissidents, as long as it is firm and consistent.

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Four years ago, Mr. Chen and I were sentenced to 13 years each in China's gulag after the government accused us of masterminding the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement. As intellectuals who had collaborated on social surveys and other projects to advance democracy in China, Chen and I were chosen as scapegoats for the Tiananmen massacre.

I last saw Chen on June 6, 1989, at the home of a mutual friend in Beijing before we left the capital to try to escape the hard-line dragnet. I did not hear of him again until May 1991, after our arrest and trial, when I learned that he, too, was being held in solitary confinement at the Beijing No. 2 Prison. Although we couldn't actually see each other, every night for the next three months we discussed China's future by shouting out the windows of our tiny, roach-infested cells.

During those years in prison, Chen and I noted how the authorities' treatment of us improved briefly each spring as China negotiated the renewal of its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status with the US. Then last year, as China lobbied for the unconditional renewal of MFN, Chen and I were abruptly freed. On April 23, 1994, police hustled me out of jail and onto a US-bound jetliner. The following month, Chen was freed in Beijing on medical parole.

But Chen's freedom proved short-lived. He was rearrested in June amid the sharp downturn in Sino-American relations sparked by Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's unofficial visit to the US. Chen was vulnerable because he had organized petitions to China's parliament on corruption and human rights. Since last month, the authorities have denied Chen medical care, despite his recent surgery. This week, they arrested his wife. As a last resort, Chen began a hunger strike on Oct. 13.

I am extremely worried about Chen. Having worked with him for more than a decade, I know he is perhaps the most unbending of China's jailed dissidents. Still, I am hopeful that consistent US pressure can secure Chen better treatment and eventual release from prison, just as it was crucial in freeing us both last year and, more recently, helped liberate Chinese-American rights activist Harry Wu.

After Tuesday's meeting in New York, the White House quoted Clinton as saying his talks with Jiang were ''very positive.'' As Washington works to improve relations with Beijing, it should be wary of Jiang's attempts to consolidate a new dictatorship in China. Jiang is shoring up support in the military, threatening Taiwan, and cracking down ruthlessly on domestic dissent. For all our sakes, Clinton must persevere in coddling human rights, not dictators.

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