WEI JINGSHENG, China's most prominent democrat, went on trial Dec. 13, signaling the government's hardening resolve to quash a small core of political dissidents.
Mr. Wei, a nominee for the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize who has spent most of his adult life in jail or under detention, was formally arrested and charged in November with conducting ''activities to overthrow the government.'' His sentence could range from 10 years in a prison labor camp to the death penalty.
The dissident first went to prison in the late 1970s for spearheading China's tiny democracy movement. Paroled in late 1993 after serving almost 15 years in jail, he relaunched his pro-democracy crusade and was again detained in April 1994.
Wei's disappearance 20 months ago signaled a renewed official vendetta against government critics. Since then, well-known dissidents have been jailed, beaten, harassed, and forced to go abroad:
* Wang Dan, an outspoken student leader jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations, is also under detention again and has not been seen for seven months, his family says.
* Chen Ziming, accused by Beijing of being a key conspirator behind the 1989 protests, was paroled in 1993 but returned to jail this year. He is in declining health, his family says.
''We are very worried about him. He should not be in prison where conditions are so bad. He is in need of special treatment,'' says a Chen family member.
''This year, there has been a paranoid climate of repression,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing, explaining that the government remains uncertain and in limbo because of the declining health of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. ''In the twilight of the Deng era, the leadership has taken a conservative turn and refuses to tolerate any political challenges.''
Wei's trial, revealed by international human rights groups last weekend, took a curious turn Dec. 11 when officials said the proceedings might be open to foreign reporters. In an unprecedented move, the Beijing Intermediate People's Court, where the dissident is being tried, took correspondents' requests for court passes.
But on Dec. 12 court spokesman Chen Xiong told journalists that all the passes had been distributed. In a telephone interview, he refused to say who would be allowed to attend the trial.
At a Chinese Foreign Ministry news briefing Dec. 12, spokesman Chen Jian said Wei was arrested because he ''violated the criminal law of the People's Republic of China'' and denied that the dissident already had been convicted. Human rights activists say that Wei likely would be convicted as acquittals are unusual in China.
Mr. Chen also confirmed that visas would not be granted to two former United States attorneys general who offered to defend Wei. Dick Thornburgh and Nicholas Katzenbach, who served under Presidents Bush and Johnson, said they were prepared to come to China if visas would be issued. ''Only Chinese lawyers can defend defendants in the court,'' the foreign ministry spokesman said.
Wei's trial is believed to have stunned Washington, which earlier this fall convinced Beijing to reopen a dialogue on American human rights concerns. International human rights organizations have been trying to mount pressure on President Clinton to intervene, although Asian and Western analysts say China's action indicates its confidence in tightening political control.
Washington continues to raise human rights issues with Beijing, although they have taken a back seat to rebuilding commercial and political ties disrupted after the military crackdown on democracy protesters in 1989. European and other Western governments have also toned down criticism of Chinese human rights abuses.
In recent months, several groups of Chinese political activists have signed petitions seeking the release of Wei; Chen, the 1989 leader; and other political prisoners in China. Wei's secretary, Tong Yi, is also serving time in a prison-reform camp.
''China is so confident that the world needs its market, it is ready to take this action to silence Wei,'' says one Asian analyst.