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2 challengers to China's one-party rule go on trial Two who tried to found first opposition party face life in prison


BEIJING -- In a sign that China's flirtation with political freedom may be off again, two organizers who attempted to form the nation's first opposition party will go on trial today in the most-watched political prosecutions in two years.

Former student leader Wang Youcai and long-time activist Qin Yongmin face charges of subversion in separate proceedings in the cities of Wuhan and Hangzhou. Wang and Qin helped form the China Democracy Party this year and could face up to life in prison, if convicted. A third organizer, former Democracy Wall advocate Xu Wenli, also is in police custody.

The Democracy Party, which claims about 200 members, is the first to openly challenge the Chinese Communist Party's nearly 50-year monopoly on power. The trials have struck an ominous note at a time when the cause of freedom looked as if it might be making a little headway in the world's last major authoritarian state.

It was only five months ago that China's leaders gave President Clinton the unprecedented opportunity to address a Chinese television audience and declare that the 1989 massacre of democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square was "wrong." In October, China signed a U.N. covenant supporting freedom of speech and assembly.

But when democracy advocates decided to take China's leaders at their word and push for official recognition of their political party, authorities responded with a coordinated series of arrests.

What this all means is a matter of great debate among diplomats, human rights advocates and academic specialists. Some observers see the arrests as a detour on a long road toward a more pluralistic, participatory system.

"The irony is the leadership does want to open up, but on its own terms," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "They want to control the pace of liberalization."

Others, citing new laws that appear to give the regime stricter control over non-governmental organizations, take a dimmer view. "The signal the authorities have sent is they feel that it has already gone too far and they want to rein it in," said Sophia Woodman, research director for the New York-based Human Rights in China. "That doesn't -- to me -- indicate a government that is prepared to initiate political reform."

The trials of Wang and Qin come at a time of significant juxtapositions in China.

Earlier this month, voters in the "other" China -- democratic Taiwan -- went to the polls for exciting mayoral and legislative races that drew an 80 percent turnout. An authoritarian nation itself as recently as the 1980s, Taiwan has emerged as one of Asia's most vibrant democracies.

Communist Party leaders will gather tomorrow to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's market-oriented reforms, which have dramatically improved living standards across the country. The contrast between the celebration of Deng's reforms and today's trial underscores the tenuous balancing act in which leaders continue to push radical economic change while resisting political participation.

Nine years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and seven years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China seems no closer to the kind of democratic diversity that has emerged in much of the rest of the world.

Despite the arrest of Democracy Party activists, some observers find solace in the fact that small discussion groups are still able to meet and talk about the same causes the party promotes: democracy and human rights.

The China Development Union -- a new environmental activist/political reform think tank -- has been deemed illegal by the government. Yet, its leader, Peng Ming, continues to hold salons every Saturday afternoon in Beijing, attracting 20 to 60 people.

Peng sees his group acting as a buffer between a citizenry increasingly frustrated with China's widening income gap and the regime. Peng predicts an economic crisis will strike China toward the end of next year and spark large demonstrations.

"We know that the party itself cannot use military force to put down social unrest," Peng said. "We will emerge as a middle power to try to convince both parties to compromise."

The government, though, is keeping a close eye on Peng.

Security men outside his office have been watching him for months. Plainclothes police sit in on meetings and take notes. When Peng tried to go to the United States this fall to speak about his work, his passport was lifted.

"As to why we still exist, the party factions have not reached a consensus to crack down on us," he said.

In their latest effort to make China a freer country, democracy advocates have encountered another frequent enemy: themselves. The bold decision to announce a political party has exposed one of the many rifts within the dissident community.

Party member Ren Wanding, who last year opposed the nomination of China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, for the Nobel Peace Prize, has accused fellow party member Xu of trying to use the party for his own aggrandizement.

"Xu has a dream of being a king," Ren said.

Xu's wife, He Xintong, dismissed the criticisms. Ren, she said, "has nothing to do, but sit and attack other human rights activists even when Xu's in jail now."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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