SERVING two years of hard labor for backing democracy, Chinese political activist Qi Dafeng may receive a harsher sentence for a new crime he committed behind bars: asking for a lawyer.
Last year, Mr. Qi was sentenced to two years in a reeducation-through-labor camp in Anhui Province for supporting the political movement of 1989 democracy activist Shen Tong.
Mr. Shen, a flamboyant student leader who fled to the United States after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, returned to China last year to launch a new pro-democracy campaign. Before the movement could get started, he was arrested with Qi and another supporter and later deported.
Qi, who has a two-year-old daughter, was the only activist of the three to receive a long sentence, and was treated leniently at first. But after insisting on legal representation, Qi was sent to work in a coal mine last May.
``It is tough working as a miner. In summer, one has to work 16 to 17 hours day.... In winter, the hours are reduced to 12 to 13 hours a day. If one violates the regulations, one is often denied [safety equipment]'' says a source familiar with Qi's case.
Despite the release of high-profile dissidents during China's campaign to win the 2000 Summer Olympics for Beijing, there is little mercy for thousands of others caught in the country's pervasive security net.
In the aftermath of the tough Olympic race that Beijing lost to Sydney, harassment of activists by security officials continues unabated, Chinese human rights observers say.
Within the next month, 19 activists arrested in May for attempting to organize underground democracy groups are expected to be tried secretly, international human rights organizations say. They could face up to life imprisonment if found guilty.
Even after their release from prison, activists remain under close scrutiny and threats from security officials. Ma Shaofang, who was freed a year ago after serving time for his involvement in the 1989 protests, was hustled out of Beijing to his home province of Jiangsu earlier this year and was told he could not leave without approval. Mr. Ma, who was offered a job for $30 a month, has twice applied unsuccessfully to travel to Beijing to get his personal belongings.
Earlier this month, on an unauthorized trip to the nearby county seat to shop and visit friends, he was attacked and beaten at night. His nose was broken. ``I had planned to spend the night at a friend's home. But as I was walking in the street at 11 p.m., I was confronted by three men. I could tell by their appearance that they didn't look like local ruffians,'' he related in a telephone interview from his home.
``The man in the red jacket hit me so hard that I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. When I came to, I reported what had happened to the county public security bureau. The response I got from one officer was, `It is none of our business.' ''
Recently, the annual battle between the US and China over renewing Beijing's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading privileges got underway with visits by high-level Clinton administration officials. In an effort to step up pressure on Chinese leaders and force changes before renewing trade privileges next summer, Mr. Clinton is sending a stream of Cabinet members, including Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, to China.
Next month, the president is due to meet Jiang Zemin, China's president and general secretary of the Communist Party, at the meeting of leaders from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle.
Reflecting Chinese determination to keep unlimited access to its largest export market, Prime Minister Li Peng has called the summit ``very significant'' and urged a narrowing of differences.
But human rights, along with Chinese arms sales and its huge trade surplus with the US, is a sticking point that will not easily be resolved. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned recently that ``I don't believe we can sustain the position of MFN beyond next June unless we see some continued improvements ... in the human rights field by the Chinese as well as reform in connection with trade practices and progress on the [weapons] non-proliferation front.''
``It's a mixed record at the present time,'' he said. ``There's some discouraging pieces of news.''
The family and friends of Qi Dafeng would agree. Recently, Qi was moved from the coal mine's bottom layer to a higher one where conditions are not as harsh, sources reported.
BUT then, prison officials intercepted a note from Qi's wife, wrapped in a bar of soap, during a visit by the dissident's brother. The note, which carried news of developments in the outside world and words of encouragement from family and friends, was confiscated, and his brother was not allowed in.
``Earlier, the family had advised Dafeng to give up the idea of engaging a lawyer and not to complain about the conditions in the mine. He had agreed,'' said a source. ``But now, they are worried. They don't know what will happen to him because of the note.''