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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : Dissent : No Reprieve for Political 'Criminals'

June 15, 1993|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — After the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests, China's leaders desperately needed two things: An excuse for their actions and villains to blame.

They found the first through rewriting history, issuing a wave of propaganda that reversed the order of events to make it appear that troops were responding to violent rioting instead of provoking it.

The government labeled the protests a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" and, in a wave of arrests, chose its villains. Chief among them were prominent social scientist Chen Ziming, a longtime moderate campaigner for democratic reform, and his colleague, journalist Wang Juntao. Labeled "black hands" behind the student protests, they were eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison--the longest terms for any leaders of the movement.

Despite the possibility, under the Chinese system, that some sort of confession could bring more lenient treatment, Chen, 41, and Wang, 34, have refused to admit guilt. They insist that the advice they gave to students camped in Tian An Men Square was aimed at defusing the crisis and promoting the nation's best interests.

In an unsuccessful appeal against his sentence, smuggled out of China and translated by the New York-based human rights organization Asia Watch, Chen declared: "I firmly believe that it is no crime to discuss the affairs of the nation, to participate in politics, to uphold the constitution and to support reform. The real crimes are those of fabricating information, making false charges against loyal people and scheming to turn the clock back. In the final analysis, the people will give the fullest verdict on who it was who committed the crime against history."

Chen and Wang were first imprisoned in 1989 at Qincheng, a facility for political prisoners on the outskirts of Beijing. They were moved to Beijing No. 2 Prison in 1991, where they were held in punitive solitary confinement cells for several months.

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These are "what they call the xiao hao , the 'little cell,' which is damp, crawling with insects, shaped like an inverted coffin, with a very high ceiling and very narrow, hardly any light, a very dim bulb, a little window way up at the top," commented Robin Munro, Hong Kong director for Asia Watch and co-author of a recently published book focused largely on Chen and Wang, called "Black Hands of Beijing."

"It is designed apparently to create maximum psychological pressure," Munro continued. "You can't imagine why anyone would build a cell like that otherwise."

Chen was moved in 1991 to a cell "with three or four common criminals," Munro said. "This was not what he wanted. He wanted to be either in a cell of his own, a normal cell, or to be with other political prisoners. The point is, these common criminals he's in with are there to keep an eye on him. . . ."

Chen is allowed, however, to have a writing desk, Munro said. His wife takes him books, which he reads voraciously.

Wang's health deteriorated in prison as a case of hepatitis B, a serious liver ailment, worsened. He was moved to a prison hospital in 1991, but relatives and friends charged that the medical attention was far from sufficient. He now is also believed to suffer from coronary heart disease.

Last week, Wang was transferred from the prison hospital to a military hospital, in apparent response to international pressure to provide him with better medical care. Wang remained in custody, however, and authorities continued to show no inclination to set him free.

Given the standards of China's past--or even its present--treatment for both Chen and Wang could be worse.

"When there's a case with massive international attention, the Chinese government backs down, to improve the conditions of the prisoners so they don't get any more bad press," Munro explained. "It's a propaganda exercise, essentially. Of course it's nice . . . for the prisoners concerned. But it's never extended to be an improvement of conditions for all the other thousands of political prisoners in China."

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