LORI REESE Less than a year ago China seemed to be abuzz with the possibility of free and open political debate. Prominent dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan had been freed from prison (both were exiled to the U.S.). The China Democracy Party (CDP), a fledgling opposition group, was gathering interest throughout the country. The government's curmudgeonly censors allowed entrepreneurs--and political activists--to roam largely unfettered on the Internet. China even made the long-awaited gesture of signing the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But shortly after President Bill Clinton toured the country in July, hopes of increased civil freedom were dashed. The government shut down political discussion groups and moved to regulate cyberspace. Dozens of CDP members and other dissidents were rounded up and given harsh jail terms. Their fate cast a chill over last week's visit to China by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.Peng Ming, 42, a prominent Beijing intellectual, was sentenced in late February without trial to 18 months in a labor camp. Founder of the China Development Union, a political discussion group, Peng was accused of soliciting prostitutes, a charge the government uses against activist leaders to discredit their organizations. People who don't know these groups will think they're corrupt, says Frank Lu, head of the Hong Kong Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy Movement in China. Four other dissidents also got long sentences for soliciting.
Wu Yilong, 31, a CDP founder, was detained two weeks ago in the eastern city of Hangzhou. Wu was taken from his home and interrogated for 48 hours by police two days before the CDP planned to hold a widely publicized study session in the central city of Wuhan. The CDP canceled that meeting, which was timed to coincide with Albright's visit, but held a smaller gathering of activists in Hangzhou.
Qin Yongmin, 45, a CDP founder, was sentenced last December in Wuhan to 12 years' imprisonment. Qin was convicted of engaging in criminal activities aimed at subverting state power in the same week that two other CDP leaders, Wang Youcai and Xu Wenli, were jailed. Qin is a veteran activist who has already served 10 years in prison and labor camps for participation in the 1979 Democracy Wall movement and other pro-democracy activities.
Zhang Shanguang, 42, labor activist, was sentenced in December by a court in southern Hunan province to 10 years in prison. A former middle-school teacher who tried to start a union to protect laid-off workers, Zhang was convicted of providing intelligence to overseas enemy organizations after speaking to U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia about a violent rural protest in Hunan.
Lin Hai, 30, software executive, was sentenced in December in Shanghai to two years' imprisonment. Though his actions were motivated by business, not dissent, Lin was convicted of inciting to overthrow state power for distributing e-mail addresses to an online magazine in Washington. Lin's sentence illustrates the measures China is adopting to control access to the Internet.
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