Intellectuals Risk Jail in Drive to Free Political Detainees : China’s Activists Press for Prisoner Amnesty

Times Staff Writer

The plainclothes police seem to have faded into the background recently, but Chen Jun knows he is playing a risky game.

Chen, 31, a minor participant in a pro-democracy movement that briefly swept China a decade ago, is now a highly visible point man in an effort by Chinese intellectuals to obtain the freedom of dissidents imprisoned at that time.

Regardless of whether they succeed, Chen and like-minded activists hope that by daring to raise the subject, they can at least reduce restrictions on free speech and promote greater openness in Chinese intellectual and political life.

Last week, Chen submitted a report on five of the most prominent of these prisoners to the National People’s Congress and repeated a request that it grant a special amnesty for them and others. The power to grant amnesty is vested in the congress by the Chinese constitution, though in practice no such decision could be made without the approval of the Communist Party Politburo.


‘Fundamental Facts’

“I want to set an example for how to argue with the government,” Chen said last week in an interview. “I also want to provide some information that has been long banned by the authorities. I want to provide fundamental facts.”

The amnesty request, first raised in January by astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, China’s most prominent pro-democracy activist, is not on the congress’ official agenda.

But a recent series of open letters in support of Fang’s proposal, signed by more than 100 Chinese writers and other intellectuals, among them the most prominent and respected in the country, has ensured that the subject is being discussed by delegates to the congress.


Letters Circulated

A few delegates are quietly trying to gather enough support to add the amnesty proposal to the formal agenda of the 16-day annual session that began March 20.

Chen and two well-known young poets, Bei Dao and Lao Mu, circulated the first of the support letters, but more have been passed around by other groups. One was signed by scientists, another largely by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chen said the report to the congress, based mostly on information published in Hong Kong, aims to make more facts about the prisoners available to delegates. The report covers Wei Jingsheng, the most famous of China’s political prisoners, and Xu Wenli, Wang Xizhe, Liu Qing, He Qiu and Lau Sanching, the last a Hong Kong man imprisoned in China on charges of counterrevolutionary activity. All were outspoken pro-democracy writers or activists in the late 1970s or early 1980s. All have been imprisoned for close to a decade.

Other prominent dissidents of the period are also in prison. But secrecy surrounding the punishment of “counterrevolutionary” crimes is so intense that there are no reliable estimates for the number of political prisoners in China. The authorities refuse to acknowledge officially the existence of any political prisoners, insisting that the term should not apply to convicted counterrevolutionaries.

Copies of the report, Chen said, have been submitted to four congressional delegates, including two members of the Standing Committee who can be viewed as representatives of the congress’ leadership.

Chen said plainclothes security officers made an open display of following his movements when he was working on the report last month and early this month.

“Whomever I contacted was investigated or called in by their (work unit) leaders to be asked what they did with me,” he said.


Chen said that after he began trying to take pictures of those following him, they stopped flaunting their presence.

No ‘Sensible Excuse’

“I’m quite optimistic they can’t do anything to me,” he said. “First of all, everything I’m doing is according to the law. . . . They can’t find a sensible excuse to lock me up.”

The amnesty proposal has not only aroused intense interest among Chinese intellectuals--and provoked concern among China’s top leaders--but has also attracted notice in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hong Kong, a British colony, is to revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Taiwan, the seat of the rival Nationalist Chinese government, is viewed by Beijing as a breakaway province that must someday be reunited with the mainland. Many people in Hong Kong and Taiwan believe that their future will be brighter if China moves toward a more open and democratic system.

China’s leaders deeply resent being upstaged by activists for democracy.

Fang Blocked From Banquet

In an incident that drew worldwide headlines last month during President Bush’s visit to China, Chinese police and security agents physically blocked Fang from attending a Bush banquet for some of China’s top leaders to which the dissident scientist also had been invited.


Since then, China’s official news media has heaped abuse on Chen, Fang and foreigners who support their plea for greater democracy.

Chen, although still a citizen of China, is married to a British woman. Fang is famous throughout the world and has many foreign friends. Such ties are part of the reason they can speak out with exceptional boldness. The average Chinese can be quietly arrested for counterrevolutionary activity and the world is unlikely ever to hear of it. But the arrest of Fang would create an international uproar. Nor could Chen be quietly put away.

Although foreign ties provide some protection, xenophobia runs deep enough in China that such ties provide a pretext for attack.

Operate Beijing Bar

Chen and his wife, Jennifer Holdaway, 26, run a trendy Beijing bar. Chen was caught in a black-market transaction about a year ago and fined 20,000 yuan ($5,390). He does not deny making the transaction but points out that currency regulations are often violated in China.

Against this background, the official New China News Agency published a fierce attack on Chen earlier this month.

“Who is Chen Jun?” it said. “He graduated from the philosophy department of Fudan University in 1983. He has been accused of engaging in foreign currency exchange on the black market and other illegal activities.”

The report said that “the letter . . . , initiated by Chen Jun and some others, aims at using foreign public opinion to exercise pressure on the Chinese government,” and added:

“The Chinese people suffered enough from foreign invasions before the liberation of the country. The Chinese people have become masters of themselves. Many problems and difficulties do exist, but these are China’s own affairs, which the Chinese people will overcome by themselves. . . .”

Authorities are especially sensitive about pro-democracy activism now because of the approaching 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement of 1919, a student-led struggle for democracy. Requests for amnesty have been pegged in part to the idea that such a step would be a fitting way to commemorate the anniversary, and there have been rumors in Beijing that student demonstrations might take place at that time.

While the threat of punishment hangs in the air, Chen, Fang and like-minded colleagues seem determined to continue speaking out.

Lao, 26, one of the poets who helped promote the amnesty letter, acknowledged that for himself, too, “there could be some danger.

“But this country has been progressing step by step these past 10 years,” Lao said. “If more and more intellectuals express their views, things can be better. Democracy isn’t something other people give you. For a country to become more democratic, it is necessary for the people, for intellectuals, to take it themselves.”