A GROUP of Chinese citizens has appealed to foreign governments and human rights organizations to help safeguard two leading pro-democracy activists who face possible execution for allegedly ``plotting to overthrow the government.'' In a letter issued here last weekend, the group called for the use of ``all possible means'' to aid activists Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, who face the most severe charges so far brought against intellectuals involved in China's spring 1989 democracy movement.
``Their lives are in danger,'' warned the letter, which was signed simply: ``A group of Chinese citizens with conscience and integrity.''
The Communist Party has publicly singled out Mr. Wang and Mr. Chen as the ``black hands'' behind last year's mass protests. On Nov. 24, relatives were informed that the two had been charged with sedition, which carries a maximum sentence of death and a minimum of 10 years in jail. The men face a second charge of carrying out ``counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement,'' which can bring up to 15 years in jail.
The letter of appeal comes as concern mounts among liberal Chinese intellectuals that the international community has forgotten the plight of dissidents detained after the massacre of demonstrators in Beijing on June 3 and 4.
``Chinese intellectuals are desperate,'' says a relative of one dissident. ``We feel abandoned. Other countries are busy pursuing their own interests. Whom can we depend on for help?''
Eager to repair relations damaged after the crackdown, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan have eased sanctions against China recently, approving loans and exchanging official visits. Beijing, which released some 900 detainees this year under the threat of continued sanctions, has little reason to free more, Chinese intellectuals say.
The Gulf crisis has also diverted international attention from China, while enhancing its diplomatic leverage as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
In the past three weeks, the government has quietly arrested Wang, Chen, and at least eight other dissident intellectuals and student leaders being held at Beijing's maximum-security Qincheng prison. (See story below.)
Chinese officials indicate that trials for the dissidents are imminent. Procurator-General Liu Fuzhi confirmed last month that authorities have indicted ``a number of criminals involved in the turmoil,'' adding, ``this work will soon be completed,'' the state-run radio reported.
Prison authorities have set up mock tribunals to rehearse the trials, according to a Chinese source with police and judicial contacts.
``These intellectuals can defend themselves very aggressively, so the government wants to make sure it will not be embarrassed,'' says the source.
Already, trials opened at Beijing's Intermediate Court in late November for two student activists, Zhang Ming and Zheng Xuguang, who were charged in recent months, a court official confirmed this week. Court hearings have begun for another five students and intellectuals, including playwright Wang Peigong and journalist Zhang Weiguo, Chinese sources say.
The trials are virtually certain to end in conviction. China's judiciary is controlled by the Communist Party, and state-assigned defense lawyers almost never contest a client's guilt.
Hard-line party leaders like Premier Li Peng seek to vindicate their backing of the bloody crackdown by imposing harsh sentences on the dissidents, Chinese sources say.
``They don't want to see a counterrevolutionary rebellion without rebels,'' said a Chinese intellectual.
Yet the leadership has so far refrained from selecting scapegoats from among the detained associates of former party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted in June 1989 for allegedly supporting the student unrest.
Apparently because of his links to senior leader Deng Xiaoping, the party has not brought charges against Mr. Zhao, who retains his party membership and official privileges. Similarly, Zhao's former secretary, Bao Tong, and political thinkers Wu Jiaxiang and Gao Shan, have not been indicted, sources say.
Instead, the party is pinning the main blame for the protests on longtime activists like Wang and Chen, who have participated in democratic movements since the late 1970s.
Both men were detained in southern China in October 1989 when police uncovered part of an ``underground railway'' by which dissidents were fleeing to Hong Kong. They are in solitary confinement in Qincheng, but are not believed to have been physically abused, say friends and relatives. Their diet is mainly wotou, or steamed corn bread, and they are allowed to read books and write occasional, censored notes to family members.