China Stiffens Stance On Dissidents, Even As US Reviews Trade

BEIJING'S ruling Communists are struggling to stifle increasingly vocal Chinese dissidents.

As the United States scrambles to improve relations with China, that diplomatic effort was dealt another blow April 1 when Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous dissident, was arrested in China's capital for the second time in a month. He was swept away by security officials as he tried to return to Beijing.

Held for 12 hours, given a ``talk,'' and then released, according to the All China News Agency, Mr. Wei has yet to return home or contact his secretary. Earlier, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that Wei, who was freed from prison last September after serving more than 14 years for political protests in the late 1970s, was not allowed to meet foreign journalists.

At the same time, a Hong Kong newspaper reported over the weekend that one of its reporters has been sentenced after being held for six months for allegedly stealing state financial secrets. The Hong Kong press said that the journalist had been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment.

Chinese police continued to harass foreign journalists yesterday when Lena Sun, Beijing correspondent of the Washington Post, was detained after taking photographs at a cemetery containing graves of victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Ms. Sun was the fifth foreign correspondent to be taken into custody in the last month.

During this sensitive run-up to President Clinton's June decision over whether to extend Chinese trading privileges, Chinese dissidents and analysts say the detentions show Beijing's determination to nip a budding dissident movement even at the cost of its foreign trade. ``If push comes to shove, the Communist Party is willing to sacrifice international trade for domestic security and control,'' says a prominent Chinese dissident.

The release of some prominent dissidents last year has reinvigorated political activism in China for the first time since the Army brutally quashed democracy demonstrations in 1989. Simultaneously, market liberalization has fueled runaway economic growth and soaring inflation and has triggered fears of new political unrest over rising prices. With the five-year anniversary of the massacre approaching, Chinese leaders are trying to contain a similar swell of public dissatisfaction, Western diplomats say.

Also prompting the crackdown on Chinese activists are recent visits by high-level US officials sent to persuade China to improve its human rights record to win renewal of its low-tariff privileges in the United States. President Clinton has said that the extension of China's most-favored-nation trading status in June depends on China's ending a range of human rights abuses including political oppression, the jailing of activists, and the destruction of Tibet's Buddhist religion and culture. China has threatened to retaliate against American companies vying for lucrative contacts and business in its huge and fast-growing domestic market.

Wei, whom the Chinese leadership fears as a powerful international voice for democracy in China, was first arrested last month after he met with a senior American human rights official. The meeting was to be a forerunner of another with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, although enraged Chinese officials blocked the meeting with Mr. Christopher by detaining Wei and prodding him to leave Beijing.

The dissident was arrested a second time as he returned to Beijing during a visit of Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans who protested the arrest at a meeting with Prime Minister Li Peng. Although Chinese officials say Wei has been freed, his secretary said: ``If he were released, he would be in contact.''

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