After Prison, a Chinese Activist Speaks Out

TWENTY months in a cramped jail cell and frequent police interrogations have only sharpened the democratic convictions of Zhang Weiguo. ``China's Constitution gives me a wide scope to speak and act,'' says the husky Mr. Zhang, his sonorous voice punctuating the din of conversation in a lively Shanghai eatery. ``No matter what trouble I encounter, I will exercise my rights. I want to make these laws a reality instead of just a lie.''

One of China's most courageous dissidents, Zhang embodies the steely integrity and high ideals of the country's besieged liberals. As Beijing bureau chief of the outspoken World Economic Herald newspaper, Zhang was a central figure in protests for press freedom and other basic rights that erupted in the spring of 1989.

Zhang openly fought a decision by then-Shanghai leader Jiang Zemin to close the Herald in May 1989. Beijing later accused the paper of ``spearheading'' antigovernment protests with the support of Zhao Ziyang, the purged Communist Party chief whom Jiang replaced.

A few days after the June 4, 1989, military crackdown in Beijing, Zhang was surrounded by 10 plainclothesmen during an evening stroll in the Shanghai suburbs. He was released from detention only this Feb. 12 after authorities failed to muster evidence to convict him of ``counterrevolutionary'' crimes.

Today, police keep a close eye on Zhang, frequently questioning him in his tiny Shanghai apartment and warning him that Chinese authorities are ``dissatisfied'' with his outspokenness. In response, Zhang reminds them of his ``principles.''

``I tell them that all my actions are in the open. I have no secret life. I don't have to plot or scheme,'' he says with a booming laugh. After a pause, he adds: ``The more open I am, the more secure I am.''

Few among the political dissidents freed recently after months of detention speak in public with Zhang's boldness. But many interviewed in Beijing and Shanghai two years after the crackdown on liberal dissent share his resolve to foster democratic change in China.

BEHIND their daily struggle against joblessness, political ostracism, harassment, and exile to the provinces, intellectuals like Zhang quietly prepare for the day when China will overturn the official verdict on June 4.

``When I was in Qincheng [the Beijing maximum-security prison], I thought the party might learn from the student movement,'' one Beijing intellectual says. ``But corruption, the economy, and people's spirits are all worse now than before June 4. Even government officials know this cannot go on for many years.''

Working mainly at home, many intellectuals continue research into ways of privatizing China's stagnant, state-run economy, and promoting democratic rule by overhauling the legal system and freeing the Chinese media. Much earlier work was lost when police confiscated computers, manuscripts, and other materials during the crackdown.

While gathering data inside China, activists are looking abroad to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for ideas on how to carry out risky reforms. Starved for unbiased news, they strain to hear jammed shortwave radio broadcasts from overseas.

To finance projects, dissidents are increasingly turning to business. ``Making money is essential for us now,'' says another dissident held at Qincheng.

Despite the obstacles, Zhang and others are upholding their intellectual integrity and encouraging a pluralism of views that they deem vital to China's future.

``China needs independent, critical voices,'' says Zhang.

``The government tends to hold a simple-minded view of events like June 4. Everything is either red or black. But in between red and black there are a lot of colors. We must bring out these colors in order to face China's reality, to choose a course for our struggle.''

Ironically, attempts to wear down Zhang in jail only strengthened his determination, or ``stubbornness,'' as his captors put it. For the first 10 months, Zhang was crammed with up to 15 criminals into a 9-by-15-foot room in Shanghai's No. 1 detention center. Meals were gritty rice and rotting vegetables. Water was scarce. In the sweltering heat, Zhang passed out twice but was denied requests for a medical exam.

THEN one night, Zhang was transferred to a secret prison on Shanghai's outskirts. Physical conditions improved. He was allowed to read history, received food from his family, and spent a precious 20 minutes a day outdoors.

But psychologically things got worse. When prison guards seized his diary, Zhang discovered that his cellmates, convicted criminals, were informers. He also learned he had been formally arrested, a prelude to trial under Chinese law.

``After that,'' Zhang recounts, ``I refused to say anything.''

Months later, authorities suddenly released Zhang. But his ordeal did not end at the prison gate.

In eight hours of questioning two weeks ago, police demanded that Zhang hand over notes, photos, and other materials documenting the life of former Herald editor Qin Benli, Zhang's mentor, who died on April 15. Zhang is coauthoring a book on Qin and the Chinese media.

``I told them they had stepped over the line,'' says Zhang. Instead, he offered to let them see a copy of the completed book, but only if they returned his diary from jail.

Zhang, now jobless, finds solace in the certainty that the next decade will bring progressive change to China. Like other dissidents, he is also heartened by common Chinese who dare to offer him support.

``The day I was released many people bravely came to console me. They said history would prove that I was not at fault,'' Zhang said. ``I was deeply moved.''

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