WHILE the world's attention has been diverted to the turbulent Middle East, China has quietly continued to mete out punishment to leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and others charged with political crimes, say human rights watchers. No one knows how many political prisoners China now has, says former leading dissident Fang Lizhi, now a professor at Cambridge University. "But we do know that the inmates of certain camps in Xinjiang Province number from 50,000 to 80,000 per camp. One informed researcher has estimated 10 percent to be political prisoners."
China was expected to put more dissidents on trial soon, according to Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Asia Watch, a nonpartisan organization that monitors human rights.
Meanwhile, the International Operations Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was to hold hearings March 26 on a bill to establish Radio Free China.
Some dissidents are charged with the most serious crimes under Chinese law - counterrevolutionary incitement and attempted overthrow of the government, says Mr. Jendrzejczyk. Testifying before a recent Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing on repression in China, he said the prominent dissidents going on trial represent only a handful of the thousands held since the crackdown began in June 1989.
"Many others have been locked away in local detention centers across China - far from Beijing and the spotlight of media attention - without ever being charged or tried," says Jendrzejczyk. "They were simply convicted by the security police, who can sentence detainees to as much as three years of so-called 'labor reeducation' without any judicial procedure or review."
"This type of forced labor 201&gt; effectively strips Chinese citizens of their rights under international law to be protected against arbitrary detention and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty," he adds.
In a statement to the Congressional forum, Fang said that the crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square is part of a "pattern of human rights abuse practiced by the Communist regime for many years."
The statements by Mr. Fang and Jendrzejczyk are supported by a recent briefing memo of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York.
But while Beijing continues to convict student leaders of the 1989 democracy movement, China's top leaders have also encouraged Washington to lift sanctions and renew foreign investment.
"An essential component of this strategy involves the need to assign blame for the events of spring 1989, and to punish the offenders - those accused of being the so-called 'ring-leaders' who manipulated the student demonstrators," says Jendrzejczyk. Supporting the US-led coalition in the Persian Gulf provided a perfect cover for carrying out this strategy, he adds.
On Feb. 12, Beijing announced sentences of four persons charged with "conspiracy to overthrow the government," according to a briefing memo of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. These included economist Chen Ziming and journalist Wang Juntao, each sentenced to 13 years imprisonment and to four years deprivation of political rights on charges of sedition and counterrevolution propaganda and incitement. Both men appealed but were recently denied.
In the US, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, with branches at colleges around the country, has sent an open letter to Wan Li, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, defending Wang Juntao, Chen Ziming, and others involved in the 1989 movement. The IFCSS claims the protesters "practiced nothing but the basic rights granted by the Chinese Constitution."
The letter states that the trials violate both the current laws of the People's Republic of China and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California has circulated a letter calling on President Bush to condemn publicly the Chinese government's decision to impose 13-year sentences on the demonstrators.
Representative Pelosi sponsored legislation last year to condition China's most-favored-nation status, which brings significant advantages in trade with the US. Mr. Bush vetoed the bill. A similar bill may be introduced this year.
Pelosi also authored the Emergency Chinese Immigration Relief Act last year to enable Chinese students to stay in the US or to waive the requirement that they return to their homeland for two years. Although this bill was also vetoed, Bush did issue an Executive Order to protect the students.