AMERICAN-CHINESE human rights activist Harry Wu has become a key bargaining chip in ties between China and the United States.
Against the backdrop of Mr. Wu's conviction and sentencing, announced yesterday, American and Chinese negotiators sit down this weekend to hold talks aimed at rebuilding diplomatic relations from their lowest level in recent years. US Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff arrived in China Thursday on a fence-mending mission.
On Thursday, the official New China News Agency reported that a court in the central Chinese city of Wuhan found Mr. Wu, a former Chinese citizen, guilty of spying. He was accused of posing as a government worker, and illegally obtaining, buying, and leaking state secrets.
Wu, who served almost two decades in a Chinese prison camp and has crusaded to expose widespread abuses in that penal system, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and expulsion from China by the Wuhan People's Intermediate Court, the news agency said.
But with the dissident's fate still uncertain, the sudden verdict could be a preamble to Wu's release in exchange for American concessions on Taiwan and a visit to China by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton next week, Western analysts say.
Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to head an American delegation to the United Nations women's summit in Beijing next week. But amid calls that she boycott the meeting over the detention of Wu, she has withheld a final decision in hopes of Chinese leniency toward the activist.
Beijing wants assurances
''The release of Harry Wu would certainly improve the atmosphere of US-China relations across the board,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ''That could make it considerably easier for Mrs. Clinton to attend the meeting.''
And, adds the diplomat, ''The Chinese government seems to be dangling this in front of the US in order to win assurances on Taiwan.''
Relations between Washington and Beijing haven't been as frosty since the Chinese military crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989. On Wednesday, China warned that ties between the two political and economic rivals had hit bottom and threatened a new cold war.
China was enraged when the Clinton administration granted a visa to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make a ''private'' visit to the US in June to attend a university reunion in New York.
During the last month, China has conducted two rounds of missile tests near Taiwan in an apparent move to intimidate Mr. Lee's government, which has sought higher international status for the island.
No visas for Taiwan leader?
China, which considers Taiwan a rebel province, has demanded that the US pledge not to invite the Taiwanese leader again and reaffirm the US commitment to sole recognition of Beijing. Washington established diplomatic times with Beijing in 1979 after years of supporting Taiwan, but continues unofficial diplomatic and military ties with the island government.
Washington has been demanding the humanitarian release of Wu, who was detained after entering China from Kazakhstan in June. In July, he was formally arrested and charged with spying. In addition to the dissident's case, the two countries are at odds over alleged Chinese missile sales to Pakistan and American opposition to China's bid to join the new World Trade Organization.
But amid mixed signals on Wu's fate, China kept mum Thursday on whether or not the activist would have to serve his prison term before being expelled. Normally, the crimes of spying and stealing state secrets carry the death penalty.
However, the judicial handling of the Wu case has always reflected its political sensitivity. Although Wu is allowed an appeal under Chinese law, his lawyer said the dissident has decided not to pursue this course. Appeals rarely result in a changed verdict. Wu's trial, which resulted from an unusually swift investigation, was held on Wednesday and attended by a US consular officer. It was not open to the press.
The New China News Agency reported that Wu had admitted his guilt and made a confession before the trial in a development that could clear the way for his release and immediate expulsion, Western analysts say.
But a foreign ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, refused to say if Wu would have to serve more time in jail before being expelled from China.
''I think that decision is up the relevant authorities in charge of law enforcement,'' Mr. Chen said.