AFTER months under the constant eye of security police, outspoken journalist Zhang Weiguo said last week that he is being allowed to leave China for the United States.
Mr. Zhang, former Beijing correspondent of the banned World Economic Herald of Shanghai, told the Monitor in a telephone interview that he has been invited to be a research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. He plans to focus on human rights and development of news media in China since economic reforms were launched in 1978.
Although he expects to receive his passport by Dec. 25, Zhang said he will postpone departure until January for health reasons. He intends to return to China.
"Being allowed to go overseas should not be taken as a major sign of improvement in China's human rights record. Much more attention should be given to human rights issues as a whole," Zhang said from his Shanghai home. "China is changing, and the study of human rights in China is in its beginning stage. A lot of work has to be done."
Zhang's departure comes as China continues to try to mute condemnation of its human rights record following the June 4, 1989, massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. In 1991, China pledged to then-Secretary of State James Baker III that it would grant exit visas to citizens not facing legal charges.
In August, China gave a passport to labor activist Han Dongfang, allowing him to seek medical treatment in the US.
And last month, Bao Zunxin, a former scholar at the China Academy for Social Sciences, was released on probation 19 months before the end of a five-year term imposed for his involvement in the Beijing demonstrations.
Yet while Beijing frees or expels some troublesome dissidents, the Communist dictatorship is not lifting its lid on political expression, Western and Chinese observers say.
In recent weeks, Chinese secret police have detained several dissidents linked to the return this year of pro-democracy activist Shen Tong. Mr. Shen, who fled to the US after the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing, came back to China in July, was arrested in September, and expelled to the US in October.
Activists say that Chinese police, in arresting Shen, may have captured detailed records of China's dissident network. Several activists who met Shen have since been detained, including An Ning, an archaeology graduate of Beijing University, and Meng Zhongwei, a former student at Zhengzhou University.
Recently, Li Honglin, a prominent advocate of political and economic reform and a scholar at the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences, was denied permission to leave China to lecture at several American universities. After attempting to negotiate between the government and the students during the Beijing protests, Mr. Li was jailed for 10 months.
In a new report, Amnesty International charges that prison torture is intensifying in China. "Torture has become endemic in many places of detention in China, and the abuses suffered by prisoners are now more severe than they were 10 years ago," the group says in a 1992 report.
Zhang, who said he was recently asked to join the council of the New York-based group, Human Rights in China, was imprisoned for 20 months after the Beijing massacre. The liberal World Economic Herald was shut down, and Zhang, a lawyer who had worked for the newspaper for three years, was expelled from the Shanghai branch of the China Academy of Social Sciences.
In February 1991, Zhang was released and told he would not be prosecuted. But he enraged Chinese authorities the following June when he was interviewed for a British Broadcasting Corporation program on the second anniversary of the crackdown.
"When Beijing leaders learned of the program, they became furious and blamed Shanghai authorities for failing to keep me under control," Zhang told the Monitor.
"After that, I was put under residence surveillance for 21 days" and later had to post bail and await trial, he said. "Even at that time, the public security authorities told me to seek an opportunity to go overseas and go out as soon as possible.
"This will save trouble for you as well as for us," he quoted security officials saying.
Zhang said President-elect Clinton should exert pressure on China to win the release of many still-jailed dissidents.
But "more importantly," he said, "China should overhaul its laws. We should deliberate on whether to do away with counterrevolutionary charges because under those charges, Chinese citizens are deprived of their freedom."
Despite some suggestions that economic reform could be accompanied by more political and social openness, the journalist said he does not foresee a return to the freedoms that gave birth to a paper like the Herald.
But Zhang contends the forces that led to the 1989 protests remain just below the surface in China. "The [pro-democracy] campaign is not far away," he says. "Under normal circumstances, China's political reform will take a long time."