Former friend of Chinese leaders now vocal critic of rights abuses

Lois Wheeler Snow, the widow of the first American writer to put a human face on China's Communist founders, says that in many ways, she has come full circle, from famous friend to Beijing foe.

For decades, Mrs. Snow and her husband, Edgar, were treated as VIPs here while vilified in the United States. In the 1950s, they were branded as "communists" for Mr. Snow's glowing reports from China in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1970s, they were hobnobbing with China's elite. Snow recalls standing next to Chairman Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate, "All these people were cheering and screaming and fainting - Mao was like a god."

But Snow's disillusionment with Beijing was on full display this week. On Wednesday, she called on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to condemn China's disregard for human rights.

Snow says that a five-day trip to Beijing this past week prompted her to fly directly to Geneva, where the UN commission is considering a motion of censure against China.

"I went to China to try to persuade the government to open a dialogue with the victims of Tiananmen," says Snow, referring to the relatives of those who were killed or injured during the Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing.

Snow's comments come at a time when the US, while advocating China's membership in the World Trade Organization, is trying to persuade the UN Human Rights Commission to censure China for its lack of progress on civil and religious freedoms.

"The recent statement by Mrs. Snow ... does not tally with the facts," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told reporters in Beijing yesterday.

In interviews earlier this week in Beijing, and later by telephone from Geneva, Snow said her first trip to China a generation ago and this visit have both seemed like surreal films directed by the Chinese leadership, but with very different plots and denouements.

The 1970 journey here was like being in a grand epic to Chinese Communism and its founder, Chairman Mao, and it ultimately led to President Nixon's ground-breaking China summit two years later.

But this time, Snow says, "I felt like I was in a third-rate thriller."

The elderly Snow was constantly "tailed by goons," videotaped by the Communist Party's secret police, and even spied on while visiting her husband's grave, a Beijing memorial site that, ironically, was granted by earlier leaders in homage to writer Edgar Snow.

The strange thing, she says, is that ascending into the corridors of Chinese power, and then falling into the class of political enemy, were both due to a willingness to speak out about Beijing's rulers.

For decades the Snows mixed with China's political elite. "I was chauffeured around in Red Flag limousines, and met with [former Premier] Zhou Enlai and other top leaders," says Snow.

Her husband is honored here as a hero because he challenged Western, anti-communist thinking in his reports on the rise of the egalitarian Red Army and the decline of the corrupt Nationalist Party government. Snow's reports on Mao and the Red Army, later compiled in a book titled "Red Star over China," helped generate international sympathy for the communist revolutionaries. In gratitude, Mao later invited the Snows to the high festival of Chinese communism in 1970. Even as Mao publicly raged out against the capitalist West, he was privately seeking an opening to the US. Mao told Edgar Snow in a series of interviews, which the New York Times refused to print, that President Nixon would be welcome to visit China. Two years later, Nixon made his historic trip.

But Snow says her VIP status ended last week, when she tried to meet with a Chinese professor whose son was killed in the army's 1989 attack on student protesters. Snow wanted to deliver a small donation and a message of support to Professor Ding Zilin, who has been under house arrest since 1989.

"All of a sudden, my privileged position was gone," Snow says, and a contingent of state security agents began following her. "But in a way that was wonderful, because it allowed me to see for the first time the utter vulnerability of anyone who disagrees with the [Chinese] government."

"China always tells journalists to be like Edgar Snow when you report the news," she says. "But if a Chinese reporter really had the courage to write the truth, he'd be in a salt mine the next day."

During Wednesday's press conference in Geneva, Snow talked about the casualties of 1989. "The whole world has to stand up and say [to China] "you have to adhere to the human rights covenants you have signed'," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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