WASHINGTON -- Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in China's prison-labor "gulag" and then devoted his life to exposing it, has become the focus of what may be the worst deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations since they were formally established in 1979.
Mr. Wu, 58, has been detained by Chinese authorities in a remote border town of Xinjiang province since June 19, when he tried to enter China from neighboring Kazakhstan. He has returned to China several times to investigate prison labor since emigrating in 1985 and becoming an American citizen.
U.S. officials see the detention as the latest of several Chinese moves to retaliate for President Clinton's decision to grant a visa for the first time to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Mr. Lee made a private visit to the U.S. last month to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University.
China, which consistently opposes Taiwan's efforts to gain international acceptance, also has withdrawn its ambassador to Washington and blocked high-level contacts with U.S. officials, including a visit by Peter Tarnoff, the undersecretary of state
"The formal and official aspect of the relationship is at its lowest state certainly since before 1979," when former President Jimmy Carter opened formal diplomatic relations with China, said Douglass Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington and an adviser to former President George Bush.
In a symbolic show of pique, he notes, China is sending only a vice minister to the annual Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing -- the lowest-level representation in years.
China's bitter response to the Lee visa is just one source of growing friction between the United States and Beijing.
* Missile exports: China is suspected of continuing to violate the 25-nation Missile Technology Control Regime by supplying M-11 missile parts to Pakistan. Worse, U.S. intelligence has obtained information that China sold Iran guidance systems to make its Scud missiles more accurate.
Under U.S. law, the latter violation could trigger U.S. trade sanctions, hurting the economies of both countries.
* Nuclear weapons: China has flouted a worldwide moratorium on nuclear-weapons tests, although Chinese officials say they still intend to sign a test-ban treaty.
* Expansionism: China has broadened its claims in the South China Sea and its mineral rich Spratly Islands, causing growing nervousness among its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines, and drawing warnings from Washington not to bTC interfere with sea traffic.
* Human rights: In what some analysts see as a deliberate slap at President Clinton, China has re-arrested some of the same pro-democracy activists who had been released before the president's decision last year to maintain China's favorable trade status.
Beneath these strains is a growing mutual suspicion between the world's only superpower and its most populous country that touches on China's role in the world, the nature of its regime and political turmoil in both countries.
This is where Mr. Wu comes in.
Born into a Westernized, upper-middle-class household as the son of a pre-revolution Shanghai banker, Mr. Wu ran afoul of Communist Party ideologues during his university years and was labeled a counterrevolutionary rightist.
The day after graduating from the Beijing Geology Institute in 1960, he was arrested for anti-Communist statements he had made during a student assembly three years earlier-- denouncing the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Sent into penal labor, "I learned that the only way to survive was to become inhuman -- not to think, not to feel," he later wrote in an article published last year. "I was repeatedly tortured and nearly died from starvation and exposure to freezing temperatures."
"I spent 19 years thinking about food," he recalled in a 1994 interview. "I never washed my bowl; I always used my tongue to clean it."
When he was released from the camp in 1979, he returned to his university in Beijing knowing, he says, "that the Communist dictatorship was all around me." He emigrated to the United States in 1985.
In his memoir, "Bitter Winds," congressional testimony, collaborative reports with journalists and his work as head of his own organization, the Laogai Research Center, he has single-mindedly sought to draw the world's attention to China's network of forced-labor prisons.
Perhaps his most explosive revelation came last year, when, accompanied by a BBC reporter, he documented the sale of organs from executed prisoners. His findings were corroborated this year by Amnesty International.
A natural ally of international human rights groups, the staunchly anti-Communist Mr. Wu is also a favorite of Republican conservatives like the hard-line chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
Like them, he rejects the theory held by all U.S. administrations since the Carter years that an opening of China's economy will, in time, lead to political reforms.
Mr. Wu says the "laogai" system of 1,100 prison camps feeds Chinese industry and exports, and says China's explosive economic growth is a mere "bubble." A huge Chinese crisis looms, he warned.
Mr. Wu's ties to Republicans, who now control Congress, puts added pressure on the Clinton administration to make his detention a high-profile issue between the United States and China.
In a stream of daily statements, the State Department has accused China of violating a consular agreement by refusing U.S. diplomats access to Mr. Wu and called for his release.
Although to some members of Congress the Clinton administration has appeared too soft toward China, Beijing itself suspects a number of Clinton appointees of harboring hostile attitudes, analyst say.
Particularly unpopular among China's rulers is Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs. Mr. Lord once served as an envoy to China and later became a strong critic of Beijing's human-rights practices, according to Mr. Paal.
"There's a very paranoid mind-set in China right now," Mr. Paal notes, with the nation's leadership fearing a campaign to encircle and contain China. Improved U.S.-Taiwan relations are seen as part of that, he said.
And with the future leadership of China in flux with China's 90-year-old senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, about to die, "none of these guys can afford to look less nationalist than his competitor," Mr. Paal said.
Analysts agree that the longer the Wu standoff continues, the deeper the friction will become.