Beijing Prison Watch
Treatment of fasting activists arouses growing concern
BEIJING — IT was Aug. 13. Wang Juntao, surrounded by four or five guards, was led into the visitors' room of the Beijing No. 2 Prison in the southern outskirts of the capital.Mr. Wang looked pallid, a gaunt likeness of the heavyset activist who helped guide China's spring 1989 democracy movement. He was just 22 months into a 13-year jail term for "conspiring to subvert the government." The dimly lit, 6-foot-square cell at the No. 2 Prison where he had lived in solitary confinement since April was infested with insects. The only fittings were a wooden plank on the floor for a bed, an open latrine, and a tap that provided water for brief periods each day. Wang, who suffers from a liver ailment, said prison officials had denied him proper care. His voice was agitated, angry. "I have lost hope that prison officials will improve conditions for me," a Chinese source quoted Wang as saying. Scores of requests for better treatment had brought Wang no action, "like a stone dropped into the sea," the source said. Later that day, Wang began a hunger strike. His fellow activist and prison mate, Chen Ziming, began a sympathetic fast the next day. Despite public denials by prison officials, Chinese sources close to Wang's family believe he is still refusing food. Foreign pressure is mounting on China's leaders to free Wang, Chen, and other political prisoners jailed after the June 4, 1989 crackdown. Last week, two groups of United States lawmakers and British Prime Minister John Major raised the cases of Wang and Mr. Chen during meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing. A nine-member US delegation led by congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D) of California concluded that China's abuse of human rights is "worsening." The delegation had appealed for the release of Wang, Chen, and all other dissidents jailed for joining the 1989 protests. Its request to visit Wang and Chen in jail was denied. The negative publicity clearly annoys Beijing. Since mid-August, it has published three articles responding to accusations that Wang and Chen are being mistreated. Although the government reports were distorted, calling solitary confinement a form of "revolutionary humanism," they confirmed that both men are ill and have begun hunger strikes. In the past, Beijing has rarely divulged details about political prisoners. But while China's hard-liners could bow to international pressure by easing the abuse of Wang and Chen in jail, they are sure to reject demands for amnesty for the two men jailed as the "black hands" behind a "counter-revolutionary rebellion," Beijing's term for the 1989 protests, Chinese dissidents say. Amnesty for Wang and his fellow activists would be tantamount to reversing the hard-line verdict on the bloody, June 4 massacre, labeled a "glorious victory" by the Communist Party. Moreover, party conservatives view Wang and his colleagues as one of the most potent forces threatening their monopoly on power. Unlike the teenage students who led the spring 1989 rallies across China, Wang, Chen, and others charged as "black hands" represent a group of older, veteran democrats. Their activism began 15 years ago in April 1976, when they were jailed for joining a mass rally in Tiananmen Square mourning the death of Premier Zhou Enlai and attacking Mao's radical rule. During the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79, Wang and Chen were among the chief organizers of the unofficial journal Beijing Spring. In the winter of 1980-81, they grabbed an opportunity created by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's political reforms and stood as independent candidates in campus elections for local "people's congresses." As their ideas matured in the 1980s, the young democrats grew convinced that Mr. Deng's economic reforms were unleashing vibrant, competing social interests in China that could form the basis of a new civic consciousness and eventually political pluralism. To promote this process, Wang, Chen, and other intellectuals set up an influential network of unofficial think tanks, social-survey teams, and journals aimed in part at gauging the political psychology of China's citizenry. The democratic principles, financial independence, and organizational ability of this talented group of liberal intellectuals made it a prime target of attack by China's veteran Marxists. After the June 4 demonstration and killings, China's security apparatus immediately put Wang and Chen on the top of their "most wanted" list of Chinese intellectuals. In swift, closed trials, Beijing then sentenced Wang and Chen to the longest jail terms so far meted out to intellectuals who joined the 1989 movement. Throughout, Wang and Chen maintained their innocence, friends say. Short of a major political change in China, Wang and Chen are unlikely to see the light of day beyond the high, red-brick wall topped with electric wires that surrounds the Beijing No. 2 Prison. Hard-line officials at the Beijing Reform-Through-Labor Bureau, which governs the prison, have warned that nothing will improve for Wang unless he changes his "stubborn, reactionary attitude" and recants his political beliefs. They say they will spend three, five, or even 10 years "remolding" Wang, Chinese sources report.