Beijing may have timed the trials of three leading dissidents to coincide with US impeachment proceedings against President Clinton to avert a strong reaction from Washington.
Two founders of the China Democracy Party faced rushed trials Dec. 17, just as Congress was scheduled to begin debating impeachment, and a third member of the would-be opposition was tried four days later.
"In the US, Congress and the president are fighting, so the [Chinese] Communist Party chose this time to sentence" the three opposition figures, says Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based human rights watchdog group.
"In the past, the US has been the strongest critic of China's human rights abuses on the world stage," says Mr. Lu, himself a former dissident who fled to Hong Kong several years ago.
"Beijing is probably betting that the American president and Congress are distracted and have no time to pay attention to these trials," he adds.
China's Communist rulers recently launched their most severe crackdown on peaceful dissent in years, with the arrests of dozens of democracy advocates culminating in harsh sentences for the three figures branded the ringleaders of the new party.
Although China's 1949 Communist revolution was ostensibly aimed at giving power to the people, Beijing's leaders have continued their imperial predecessors' centuries-old practice of using the courts to crush dissent.
The three dissidents were slapped with prison sentences of between 11 and 13 years in trials that lacked any trace of due process, says a Beijing-based diplomat.
Defense lawyers for two of the dissidents were detained by police to prevent them from attending the trials, and the third received a court-appointed attorney just four days before his court date.
"If you're accused of a political crime here, you usually don't benefit from any procedural protections," the diplomat says.
The Chinese authorities have miscalculated if they think the US will turn a blind eye to the latest clampdown, says a Western official. "China's leadership has really shot itself in the foot by holding these trials," he says.
"It really makes them seem like political retrogrades, and is likely to cast a cloud over [Chinese Premier] Zhu Rongji's planned visit to the US next year," he adds.
Wang Youcai, a pro-democracy activist previously jailed for two years for his role in the massive Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, was convicted of "planning to overthrow the government" for trying to set up Communist China's first formal opposition.
Deprived of a defense lawyer in a three-hour-long trial held in eastern China, Mr. Wang, who received the "lightest" sentence, is set to be released in the year 2009.
Xu Wenli, who has already served 12 years for taking part in 1979's short-lived Democracy Wall movement, was tried, found guilty of "endangering state security," and sentenced to 13 years in jail - all in the space of a few hours on Dec. 21, in Beijing's Intermediate People's Court.
Qin Yongmin, who formed China's first independent human rights monitoring group before joining the Democracy Party's leadership, will spend the next 12 years in jail for promoting political change.
More leeway for prosecutors
Several American scholars say that, although China has made cosmetic changes in its laws by abolishing an entire class of "counterrevolutionary crimes," it has simply begun punishing peaceful dissent under the headings of subversion or endangering state security.
"The crimes-against-state-security provisions allow the government as much or even more leeway to criminalize political dissent as did the old counterrevolutionary provisions," says Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese law at Columbia University in New York.
The Beijing-based diplomat agrees.
In the US, any nonviolent efforts to form a new political party, monitor human rights, or call for reform come under the Bill of Rights' protection of free speech and association, he says.
"To be charged with endangering national security in the US, you have to incite to violence, as in the case of terrorist groups or neo-Nazis," the diplomat says.
Impact on US-China ties
The Communist Party's recent trials of political reform advocates have destroyed much of the goodwill built up between China and the US since Mr. Clinton's summit here last June and Beijing's subsequent signing of the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says Orville Schell, a China scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
Mike Jendrzejczyk, who heads the Washington office of Human Rights Watch, says that China's penalizing the leaders of the nascent Democracy Party violates the UN covenant's protection of freedom of association.
Along with several other American rights monitors, Mr. Jendrzejczyk says he hopes "the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, [will] intervene at the highest levels in Beijing to urge a commutation of the harsh sentences."
The Western official says Washington may sponsor a resolution condemning China at the annual meeting of the United Nations' human rights Commission in Geneva next spring.
The US agreed to forgo backing that type of resolution for the first time last year, after reaching a secret agreement with Beijing on steps it had to take to improve its rights record.
Yet Beijing seems to have reneged, and "it's time to start thinking about bringing China's rights record before the Geneva forum again," the Western official says.
A spokesman for the US Embassy in Beijing says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has already "made it clear to the Chinese government that all those incarcerated for the peaceful advocacy of their political views should be released immediately."
On Dec. 20, Beijing released Liu Nianchun, a workers-rights activist who had been sentenced without trial to three years in a labor camp, and sent him into forced exile in the US.
"Following the release of China's most famous political prisoners over the last year, Beijing needed more high-level hostages, and is now transforming the leaders of the China Democracy Party into new bargaining chips to deal with the US," says rights monitor Lu.
In an example of what could be an effort to forestall US criticism of China at the UN, Beijing offered Dec. 22 to help Washington find a solution to an impasse over weapons inspections in Iraq.
Although China quickly condemned the joint US-British attack on Iraq last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Washington and Beijing should now cooperate on the crisis to preserve world peace and to improve US-China ties.