BEIJING — In the first victory for democracy activists since a 1989 showdown with government troops at Tiananmen Square, a Chinese provincial court has quashed the convictions of four dissidents from that era.
The highest court in Jilin Province recently ruled that four defendants who formed a nonviolent political group were not guilty of trying to overthrow the state. In setting free two of the dissidents who were still imprisoned for joining a "counter-revolutionary clique," the judges created a milestone in communist Chinese law.
"This is the first time since 1989 that any Chinese court has overturned a ruling against participants in the democracy movement," says Leng Wanbao, one of the dissidents in the case said in a telephone interview from Changchun.
Yet the secrecy of the ruling, and a delay in its enforcement, point to a struggle within the highest echelons of the Communist Party over how to handle the legacy of the Tiananmen incident.
The case is reigniting a battle between hard-liners who backed the military crackdown at Tiananmen and reformists who want to chart out broader freedoms, says a Chinese legal scholar with high-level government contacts here.
As China's top leaders compete for power and position in the run-up to an all-important party congress in September, "the decision to reverse the convictions of pro-democracy figures is becoming a touchstone issue," he says.
Six months following the passing of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who is widely believed to have ordered the 1989 assault on Beijing, his successors are debating how to balance social stability and individual rights.
"While Deng was alive, it was impossible to reverse the verdicts," says Jim Feinerman, a professor who specializes in Chinese law at Georgetown University.
Mr. Leng, who was released two years ago on medical parole, says he wrote an appeal to Chinese congressional leader Qiao Shi to free 1989's political-reform advocates. "Many people think Qiao Shi is more ... reformist than other party leaders, and believe he did not agree with using the Army to retake Tiananmen," says Lu Siqing, a dissident who fled to Hong Kong four years ago.
Mr. Qiao, who holds the No. 3 spot in the party's leadership, "would have the power to intervene in the Jilin court's decision," says David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington.
Mr. Lu, who now heads a human rights group in Hong Kong, says that despite a domestic news blackout on the ruling in remote northeastern Jilin, its impact is spreading throughout China's judiciary. The success of the appeal by Leng and three other auto workers may be an initial sign of Chinese courts breaking free of party controls.
"It certainly suggests the government won't be given verdicts [they dictate] on a silver platter," says Professor Feinerman.
In the aftermath of the 1989 crackdown, thousands of figures ranging from peaceful protesters to those who burned military vehicles were given sentences as severe as capital punishment during rushed, party-controlled trials.
Tang Yuanjuan, one of the activists freed by the Jilin court after serving eight years in jail, originally received a 20 years for leading an antisocialist group and counterrevolutionary agitation.
It is still too soon to tell whether the case may be a indication of the party's full-scale reassessment of its 1989 clash with student-led demonstrators or simply a sign of rare judicial independence.
"This case does not mean the party has decided to free everyone still imprisoned from 1989," says a Beijing official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But it could be a sign the government is moving in that direction."
THE provincial court's move to overturn its own, earlier conviction may be a trial balloon that is being floated to gauge the international and domestic reaction, say Chinese and foreign analysts.
Western governments that imposed sanctions on China following the Army's march on Beijing are likely to welcome any moves toward erasing that legacy.
Yet opposition within China to officially redefining the Tiananmen protests from a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" to a peaceful democracy movement is likely to be strong among party and Army leaders involved in the crackdown. Premier Li Peng, who cosigned a martial law decree in 1989, "is forcefully against reversing the verdict," says rights activist Lu.
Although he is expected to retire as premier next year, Mr. Li wields immense power.
The Chinese legal scholar says that after protracted debate, the top party leaders decided to let the Jilin decision stand. He adds that a decision could be reached at the upcoming party plenum on whether to allow other courts to follow the Jilin precedent. In the meantime, "the depth and scope of the controversy over the Jilin test case has frightened most judges into inaction over how to handle dissidents."
In repeated requests for an interview, the three judges who presided over the Jilin case all refused to answer questions about their decision.
"This case alone does not signal a new era of freedom in China," says freed activist Leng. "It remains to be seen whether the new generation of leaders can agree to overturn the orders of their predecessors," he adds.