THE arrest of Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent campaigner for human rights and democracy, is likely to stir new international outrage over Beijing's rights abuses and revive friction with Washington.
On Nov. 21, China announced it had formally arrested and charged Mr. Wei with trying to subvert the government. It was the first official word about the dissident since he vanished 20 months ago as he openly advocated democratic political reform in China.
Analysts said the move against the dissident, who has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and enjoys widespread backing in the US Congress, will rile the United States as Beijing and Washington were trying to put relations back on track.
The official New China News Agency reported that Wei was arrested on charges of ''engaging in activities in an attempt to overthrow the Chinese government.'' His crime could be punishable by death, although China does not usually execute well-known political activists.
Wei, a former soldier and electrician at the Beijing zoo, first surged to prominence during the ''Democracy Wall'' protests in the late 1970s. In 1979, he was convicted on charges of ''providing foreign nationals with important military information and engaging in activities which posed a threat to state security,'' the news agency said.
Released in bid for Olympics
He was released in September 1993 as Beijing was trying to burnish its image in its bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics. Thereafter, he angered Chinese officials by granting interviews to foreign journalists, writing articles for foreign publications, and openly calling for democracy in China.
After repeated warnings from Beijing authorities to end his campaigns, Wei was taken into custody on April 1, 1994. The government was enraged by his secret meeting with the US government's senior human rights official, John Shattuck.
While holding Wei incommunicado for months, the Chinese authorities admitted that he was under detention and called him a criminal without giving specific charges.
On Nov. 21, the news agency reported that the dissident had been formally rearrested after the Beijing Public Security Bureau determined that Mr. Wei had ''conducted activities in an attempt to overthrow the government'' between September 1993 and April 1994.
Wei's family has been denied visits, and China has refused to discuss his case with foreign governments and international human rights groups.
The arrest comes after a number of prominent activists have been detained during the last two years as the government has tightened its grip on political dissent and Western governments pulled back from high-profile attacks on Chinese human rights abuses.
Major round-ups preceded the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June and continued in the run-up to the United Nations Women's Conference held in August and September.
The Communist Party's senior leadership has been edgy about the succession to ailing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng has nursed a particularly bitter enmity toward Wei who, in the late 1970s, attacked Deng strongly and directly.
Political conservatives are also in ascendance as Deng's influence wanes and the Chinese military assumes a higher profile as powerbroker in China's next generation of leaders. ''Wei Jingsheng has only spoken out for political change and human rights protections,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ''But this regime is in no mood to tolerate any dissent, least of all from Wei.''
The ties fray again
The arrest is also like to again unnerve volatile relations between Beijing and Washington. Officials from both countries have been trying to repair ties since the US allowed Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to pay an unofficial visit to the US. And China arrested and then deported American-Chinese human rights activist Harry Wu last summer.
Also Nov. 21, China warned the US to stop challenging Beijing on human rights at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. ''China is willing to continue to conduct such dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect. But first the United States must stop its confrontation with China at the UN Commission on Human Rights ... and should stop this kind of interference in China's internal affairs,'' a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a regular news briefing.
In recent years, American and European delegates to the UN Human Rights Commission pushed for a resolution that would have censured Beijing's rights record. The commission narrowly rejected the resolution in March.