China frees 'Special Prisoner No. 1' as U.S. weighs renewing trade status


BEIJING -- The neatly written note on the door to Xu Wenli's apartment politely begged journalists' understanding that he was simply too tired to talk anymore about his 12- year ordeal in the Chinese gulag. But inside, the short, wiry political dissident seemed almost peppy as he happily prepared to go out to dinner with his family.

Jokes perhaps were the best antidote for the shock of suddenly being paroled after more than a decade of living as China's "Special Prisoner No. 1," his official prison label. The light touch also seemed to be an effective way of wisely avoiding the topic that sent him to jail in the first place: China's lack of democracy and human rights.

After years in solitary confinement, Mr. Xu, 49, was abruptly informed yesterday morning that he was to be paroled from his 15-year prison sentence three years early. Within a few hours, he was hugging his wife and 20-year-old daughter, waving to old neighbors in his southwest Beijing apartment building and encountering a growing horde of foreign reporters.

A former electrician who was jailed for publishing a pro-democracy magazine in the late 1970s during a political movement first encouraged and then crushed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Mr. Xu apparently has not lost his political instincts.

Yesterday, all those instincts must have been signaling him to wait and watch.

Pawn in political chess

He steadfastly sidestepped requests for his opinions on China's limited political development since his 1981 arrest, saying that imprisonment had kept him out of touch with current affairs.

But he evidenced full awareness that his case has long been a cause among foreign human rights activists and that he likely was released because China's profitable trade status with the United States is up for annual renewal next Thursday.

And he got his message across, repeatedly asking reporters to convey his thanks to his "international friends for all their support over the years." He even asked that his best wishes be sent to Bill Clinton, "the young American president."

Mr. Clinton sent aides to Capitol Hill this week to float a plan for renewing China's favorable trade status this year and tying its renewal next year to some broadly stated conditions on human rights and other concerns.

Olympics, economy at stake

The president's plan is not as tough as congressional proposals, and Mr. Xu's release may have been Chinese officials' way of trying to help Mr. Clinton argue his case.

Mr. Xu is only the latest of a half-dozen political prisoners released early from jail this year by China, as it has sought to assuage concerns in the United States about China's human-rights abuses and to persuade the International Olympic Committee to allow Beijing to host the 2000 summer games.

Foreign human-rights activists expect more dissidents to be released before the IOC's Sept. 23 deadline for deciding on the 2000 venue. Speculation over who will be freed next centers on Mr. Xu's fellow dissident from Beijing's "Democracy Wall" movement, Wei Jingsheng, due to finish a 13-year sentence next spring.

But the sporadic releases -- labeled "a smile offensive" by one activist and "hostage politics" by others -- do not indicate fundamental changes in China's human-rights abuses. Thousands of other political and religious dissidents remain in jail.

In China, "law remains an instrument of state repression," concludes a report released today by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York.

"Regardless of prisoner releases and sentence reductions, the institutions that make up the criminal justice system . . . continue to routinely violate the basic rights of persons that are guaranteed under international law," the report said.

Strawberries and burials

Mr. Xu would have nothing of such weighty concerns, though.

As he sat by an untouched bowl of strawberries -- succulent fruit almost certainly unseen in prison -- he said his only immediate concern was to go out to dinner with his family and "avoid a stomachache so my wife will not worry about me."

Then, he said, he would turn to some unfinished family business: Giving his mother a proper burial.

Mr. Xu's mother died in 1988, but his brothers and sisters have kept her remains, awaiting his release so that all of them together could bury her in their hometown in Anhui Province.

"This is my first order of business, and it's going to take a long period of time," Mr. Xu said, making what seemed to be both a personal and political statement.

"So I will not be able to do anything else for a while."

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