Court Ruling Strikes Blow for Dissidents in China

By Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

Court Ruling Strikes Blow for Dissidents in China


Kevin Platt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the first victory for democracy activists since a 1989 showdown with government troops at Tiananmen Square, a Chinese provincial court has quashed the convictions of four dissidents from that era.

The highest court in Jilin Province recently ruled that four defendants who formed a nonviolent political group were not guilty of trying to overthrow the state. In setting free two of the dissidents who were still imprisoned for joining a "counter-revolutionary clique," the judges created a milestone in communist Chinese law.

"This is the first time since 1989 that any Chinese court has overturned a ruling against participants in the democracy movement," says Leng Wanbao, one of the dissidents in the case said in a telephone interview from Changchun.

Yet the secrecy of the ruling, and a delay in its enforcement, point to a struggle within the highest echelons of the Communist Party over how to handle the legacy of the Tiananmen incident.

The case is reigniting a battle between hard-liners who backed the military crackdown at Tiananmen and reformists who want to chart out broader freedoms, says a Chinese legal scholar with high-level government contacts here.

As China's top leaders compete for power and position in the run-up to an all-important party congress in September, "the decision to reverse the convictions of pro-democracy figures is becoming a touchstone issue," he says.

Six months following the passing of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who is widely believed to have ordered the 1989 assault on Beijing, his successors are debating how to balance social stability and individual rights.

"While Deng was alive, it was impossible to reverse the verdicts," says Jim Feinerman, a professor who specializes in Chinese law at Georgetown University.

Mr. Leng, who was released two years ago on medical parole, says he wrote an appeal to Chinese congressional leader Qiao Shi to free 1989's political-reform advocates. "Many people think Qiao Shi is more ... reformist than other party leaders, and believe he did not agree with using the Army to retake Tiananmen," says Lu Siqing, a dissident who fled to Hong Kong four years ago.

Mr. Qiao, who holds the No. 3 spot in the party's leadership, "would have the power to intervene in the Jilin court's decision," says David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington.

Mr. Lu, who now heads a human rights group in Hong Kong, says that despite a domestic news blackout on the ruling in remote northeastern Jilin, its impact is spreading throughout China's judiciary. The success of the appeal by Leng and three other auto workers may be an initial sign of Chinese courts breaking free of party controls. …

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