Chinese Dissidents Fade from Memory in West --Which Suits China's Leaders Just Fine


Beijing.--DOES THE NAME Wei Jingsheng ring a bell?

Probably not.

Will the names of Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao -- the two dissidents sentenced to 13 years in jail last week for their roles as "the black hands" behind the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations -- lodge more firmly in the memories of Westerners?

Probably not.

And therein is how China's leaders have laid out what they doubtlessly hope is the very last chapter of the book on the protests that so held the world's attention only 20 months ago.

Wei Jingsheng, an electrician at the Beijing Zoo who became one of the leaders of the "Democracy Wall" movement here in 1978 and 1979, has long been China's most prominent political prisoner.

Officially, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail in the fall of 1979 for passing military secrets to a foreigner.

His real crime, though, was writing a scathing essay. He argued that a "fifth modernization" -- democracy -- was necessary for China to achieve paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernizations" drive in agriculture, industry, science and defense.

Mr. Wei, now about 41 years old, is believed to have spent more than 11 years in China's extensive, largely impenetrable system of prisons and labor camps. But not much else is known for certain about his fate.

Some foreign reports in the 1980s asserted that he had lost his mind while imprisoned; others said that he had died. In a rare official statement in 1989, the state-run magazine Beijing Review maintained he was in relatively good health in a well-heated jail cell somewhere "in China's northwest."

For Western diplomats, scholars and human rights activists focused on Chinese affairs, Mr. Wei's case is well known. The Asian Wall Street Journal sometimes reprints his famous thesis on democracy. Foreign journalists now and then inquire about him here.

But he is hardly a household name in the West. And more to the point, his sentencing and incarceration cannot be said to have cost China very much, if anything at all, in terms of its diplomatic or economic relations with Western bastions of democracy in the 1980s.

Now Mr. Wei has been joined in China's prisons by Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao -- and by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other pro-democracy activists also imprisoned as a result of their involvement in Tiananmen Square protests that were brutally crushed by China's army.

As with Mr. Wei, Mr. Chen, 38, and Mr. Wang, 33, were found guilty of subversion. But, also like Mr. Wei, their true crimes in the eyes of China's leadership were independent political thought and action.

Approximately 20 pro-democracy activists were sentenced to prison in closed puppet trials during the past five weeks as Chinese authorities sought to seal their judgment on the Tiananmen protests. Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang received by far the heaviest sentences, most likely because of their well-developed skills as political operators and their long histories of dissent.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the two academic entrepreneurs built a conglomerate of private research institutes that carried out pioneer public opinion surveys, had its own printing plant and published its own weekly economics journal, research studies and books.

Financed by two astoundingly profitable correspondence schools they established, their organization virtually represented the beginnings of an independent political party. It was "by far the largest and most effective network of independent civic organizations in the history of the People's Republic" of China, according to a recent report by the U.S.-based human rights group, Asia Watch.

This organization -- called the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute (SERI) -- and many of its employees were, indeed, involved in the Tiananmen Square protests. But, the Asia Watch report concludes, Mr. Chen, Mr. Wang and their colleagues tried only to guide student protesters toward "realistic channels of protest" and minimize the possibility of violence.

"They made little headway," the human rights group's report said. "Their advice was as often as not disregarded by the students in Tiananmen Square, most notably when they failed to persuade the students to evacuate the square in advance of the impending crackdown. The idea that they somehow masterminded the entire protest movement and dictated its unfolding strategy is absurd."

Nevertheless, Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang were reportedly labelled at the highest levels of China's leadership "the black hands behind the black hands" -- meaning that they were cast as the main, behind-the-scenes ringleaders of what the hard-liners at China's helm consider to have been an orchestrated effort to overthrow 40 years of Communism.

The two activists likely earned this label because of their participation in virtually all of China's recent pro-democracy movements -- beginning with the April 5, 1976, gathering on Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Premier Zhou Enlai and reject the previous decade of repression under China's "Cultural Revolution."

That watershed demonstration set the stage for the overthrow of the leftist radicals known as the "Gang of Four" and for the final return to power of the economic reformer, Deng Xiaoping.

Similar to the 1989 protests, this movement was broken up by force; it was immediately condemned as "counter-revolutionary," and many of its participants were imprisoned. But not long after, in late 1978, that judgment was completely reversed: The April 5th Movement was deemed a "wholly revoluntary" event and those involved proclaimed "as heros of Tiananmen."

According to the recent Asia Watch report, two of those "heros" were Mr. Chen, who stirred the April 5th protesters with a speech, and Mr. Wang, who was jailed afterward by the "Gang of Four."

Rehabilitated, both Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang cropped up again as organizers of a magazine that. Along with another magazine published by Wei Jingsheng, their publication played a leading role in the 1978-79 "Democracy Wall" movement -- a movement first supported and then finally crushed by Deng Xiaoping in April, 1979, after it no longer served as a vehicle for attacking his own enemies in the Communist Party.

The political history of Communist China is rife with the sort of vicissitudes experienced by Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang. And many China analysts last week, in discussing the two dissidents' sentences, were quick to note all the historical ironies.

The quick reversal of the party's verdict on the first Tiananmen protest -- and the equally sudden transformation of "counter-revolutionaries" into "heros" -- does at least provide a historical basis for the hope that Mr. Chen and Mr. Wang will not have to endure years in China's Gulag, as has Mr. Wei.

Hope, too, lies in some of the major differences between the protest movements of 1989 and the late 1970s: The scale of the more recent Tiananmen protest was far larger than that of the "Democracy Wall" movement; the violent crackdown on the 1989 demonstrations was witnessed worldwide; and it shattered the West's decade-long honeymoon with China, an illusion that was just blossoming when Wei Jingsheng was sentenced in 1979.

Nonetheless, there remain enough bleak parallels between the case of Wei Jingsheng and those of Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao to suggest a decidedly less hopeful scenario for the two recently sentenced dissidents. It is a scenario in which they are increasingly forgotten.

Robert Benjamin is The Sun's Beijing correspondent.

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