Human Rights: China Kills a Few Chickens

Article excerpt

The new crackdown on political activists may mean that party leaders are afraid of deeper unrest

To most chinese, the political atmosphere still feels more like springtime than winter, with daring new ideas coming into bud. At a library in Guangzhou, an exhibition of nude photographs draws thousands of viewers, and the authorities make no effort to close it down. In Beijing, book kiosks prominently display author He Qinglian's new work, "The Pitfalls of Modernization," a critical look at the past 20 years of Chinese reform. On television, a program called "Focus Report" continues its exposes of local corruption and mismanagement with a story on pollution at a mushroom-processing plant. "How is it," the announcer asks indignantly, "that so many people knew about the problem, yet nothing was done?"

But for a tiny minority of Chinese, a chill wind of repression is blowing. After a perfunctory secret trial, Zhang Shanguang, 42, was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison for "illegally providing intelligence to hostile foreign organizations." His offense: he told a reporter for the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Asia about a tax protest by a small group of farmers in Hunan province. "Everyone knows about the event," complained his wife, "so how can this be considered a national secret?"

Zhang was one victim of a harsh new crackdown on dissidents. In the past month, the authorities have rounded up nearly 30 activists. Three leaders of a would-be opposition movement, the China Democratic Party, were sent to prison for challenging the Communist Party's exclusive grip on power. And last week two New York-based activists who illegally slipped back into China were sentenced to three years in a labor camp.

The crackdown might already have led to a crisis in U.S.-China relations if Washington weren't so distracted by impeachment. Certainly, the warmth generated by Bill Clinton's visit to China last June has disappeared. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rejected an internal proposal to host a party in Washington this month to mark the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic ties, and 60 members of Congress urged Clinton to get tough with Beijing. Relations were further strained last week when a congressional committee charged that, for 20 years now, China has improperly obtained U.S. military tech-nology. The committee hasn't released a declassified version of the report, but some U.S. government analysts believe that two American companies helped China significantly improve the performance of rockets that could be used to launch satellites or ballistic missiles. …