In a warning that also seemed aimed at future foreign press coverage, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed severe displeasure at an American newspaper article based on a manuscript allegedly smuggled out of a Chinese prison.
The front-page article by Michael Weisskopf, Peking correspondent of the Washington Post, detailed alleged abuses, including beatings and torture, against the Chinese dissident Liu Qing.
Mr. Weisskopf was called to the Foreign Ministry's information department Sept. 21. He was read a "warning" which described the manuscript as "of unknown origin" and "a sheer fabrication."
Mr. Weisskopf was accused of having "defied the provisional regulations of the Chinese government concerning resident correspondents of foreign news agencies which must be adhered to by them."
He was warned, "If things of a similar nature happen again in future, you will be held responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom."
On the instructions of his editors Mr. Weisskopf has withheld comment.
The surfacing of the manuscript alleged to have been written by the dissident Liu Qing shows how potent a theme the conflict between law and arbitrary power remains in China.
The manuscript tells of beatings suffered by Mr. Liu in prison, of being forced to wear a gas mask that made breathing difficult, and of being laden with a heavy chain.
The consistent threat running through the manuscript, according to those who have seen it, is the conflict between Mr. Liu's demand that law be respected and the assertion of his captors in the public security bureau that they could do as they pleased.
The Foreign Ministry information department underlined its warning by calling foreign news agencies to make sure they knew of the statement read to Mr. Weisskopf.
The Washington Post correspondent is accused of violating Article 12 of the provisional regulations issued this spring by the State Council (cabinet). The article says, "The journalistic activities of resident correspondents shall not go beyond the limit of normal news coverage."
Despite several attempts by correspondents to clarify "normal news coverage," Foreign Ministry spokesmen have resolutely refused to go beyond the text of the regulations.
As for the manuscript on which Mr. Weisskopf wrote his article, its alleged author was, until his Nov. 1979 arrest, deputy editor of "April 5 Forum." This was probably the most respected of the numerous unofficial journals which sprang up during the 1978-79 "democracy wall" period and which have since been ruthlessly suppressed.
The manuscript was allegedly smuggled out of prison some time this summer. Besides the Washington Post, Time magazine and the Associated Press have published excerpts from the manuscript, but so far Mr. Weiskopf is the only one to have been given a "warning."
Foreign Ministry officials have said that this is because the Weisskopf article was the first one they read, although in fact the AP and Time accounts were in Peking hotel newsstands a day before the Sept. 15 Washington Post article.
Those who have seen the 200-page manuscript, whose opinion this writer respects, are convinced it is genuine.
Mr. Liu writes that he has never been brought to trial, public or closed, and yet he has been sentenced to two years of labor reform, until Nov. 11, 1981.
He has been at a labor reform camp in Shaanxi Province, in northwest China, since July 1980.
China's political dissidents, many of them former Red Guards disillusioned by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, flourished for a brief period in 1978 and 1979 but have since been decimated by repeated arrests.
The most famous and eloquent of them, Wei Jingsheng, has been behind bars since March 1979, having been sentenced in November of that year to 15 years imprisonment.
Yet political dissidence, characterized by barehanded individuals who refuse to submit to the arbitrary behavior of the wielders of power, sputters along.