BEIJING -- Sending a chilling message to its opponents, China sentenced two of the nation's most prominent dissidents to a combined 24 years in prison yesterday for trying to establish an independent political party.
In a bold effort, organizers Xu Wenli and Wang Youcai had sought official recognition for their China Democracy Party in this one-party state. Their group became the first to openly challenge the Communists since they took control of the country in 1949.
Yesterday, Xu received 13 years and Wang 11 on charges of subversion. A third organizer, Qin Yongmin, 44, was convicted Thursday on the same charge, but has yet to be sentenced.
The harsh jail terms are the latest setback for democracy advocates in the world's last major authoritarian nation. In the past several weeks, the already narrow boundaries limiting political freedom have continued to tighten as the government has arrested or questioned more than 30 dissidents.
The crackdown has come amid concerns about growing unrest among the country's millions of laid-off workers. Leaders in Beijing are especially nervous about the coming year, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China as well as the 10th anniversary of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square.
Xu, 55, was convicted after a 3 1/2 -hour, closed-door trial under heavy security. He said an appeal would be pointless in such an oppressive system, according to his court-appointed attorney, Mo Shaoping.
Xu refused to answer prosecutors' questions. As part of his defense, he tried to explain his democratic ideas. A judge cut him off after 10 minutes, saying he was straying from the topic, a second defense attorney said.
When the verdict was read, Xu's wife, He Xintong, said: "You, judge, are blaspheming the law." The judge told her to keep quiet.
Xu was a prominent activist in the late-1970s Democracy Wall movement and spent 12 years in jail from 1981 to 1993.
China's official Xinhua news agency alleged that Xu and Wang had taken money from organizations outside the country and that they had received fair and open trials.
Wang, 32, was convicted in a separate trial Thursday in Hangzhou. He already has served two years in jail for his role as a student leader during the Tiananmen Square uprising.
In the past year, the Clinton administration has sought closer ties with China. Officials have argued that engaging China's leaders -- instead of frequently criticizing them -- would bring about improvements in human rights.
Yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing deplored the court actions.
"We are deeply disappointed with both the guilty verdicts and the extremely harsh sentences," said spokesman Bill Palmer. "No individual should be arrested, tried or sentenced for exercising internationally recognized freedoms, including those guaranteed in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China has committed itself."
Palmer was referring to an agreement China signed in October endorsing free speech and freedom of association.
The China Democracy Party, which claimed some 200 members around the country, emerged at a time when the regime seemed to take a somewhat more tolerant attitude toward opposing ideas.
Discussion groups and books had emerged advocating a multiparty political system, human rights and national elections. While such concepts are now common in much of the rest of the world, talking openly about them here is still considered daring.
During President Clinton's visit to Beijing last June, his hosts permitted an unprecedented live television broadcast of a news conference in which he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin sparred on the issue of human rights and Clinton declared the 1989 massacre "wrong."
However, in a televised speech Friday, Jiang rejected the notion that China might embrace democracy.
"The Western mode of political systems must never be copied," he said.
The scene outside the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, where Xu was tried, seemed to underscore that point.
As if guarding a crime scene, authorities strung white and yellow police tape outside the courthouse, which sits along the city's main boulevard.
Police officers in green uniforms stood at 20-yard intervals along the sidewalk, which they had cleared of pedestrians. Plainclothes officers loitered about nearby subway stations. Journalists had to stand in a muddy parking area nearly a block away.
In a sign that the government's control of the media remains effective, residents who live near the courthouse had no idea what was going on. The party's grip on information has left people like Xu unknown to the vast majority of Chinese.
After Jiang's speech Friday, the government increased pressure on one of the democracy "salons" that has emerged this year in Beijing. A management company told organizer Peng Ming last weekend that he could no longer rent space in its building for his China Development Union -- an environmental and political reform group. He has two days to move out.
Peng said surveillance outside his office grew from two police cars to five after Jiang's address. He said he would suspend his Saturday discussion groups.
"I think we are now entering into a politically sensitive and high-pressure period which will last until National Day [China's Independence Day, Oct. 1] next year," Peng said.
On Sunday, the regime released longtime labor activist Liu Nianchun, 50, on medical parole and sent him into exile in the United States. Liu is the third dissident -- along with Democracy Wall leader Wei Jingsheng and Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan -- to be sent to the United States in the past 14 months.
Some observers saw Liu's sudden release as an attempt to blunt international criticism of the impending sentences.
"The purpose of arresting them is to release them," said Han Dongfang, a labor leader in Hong Kong who spent 22 months in jail for his role in the Tiananmen movement.
Echoing the sentiments of some human rights activists who see Beijing's catch-and-release policy as a cynical game, Han said he did not expect Xu or Wang to serve their full terms.
"When the chance comes, they will release them as gifts to Western countries," he said.
Pub Date: 12/22/98