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World Report 3/15/99

The dissension among Chinese dissidents
A rift produces hard words and a lawsuit


BEIJING–While Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in China last week denouncing a Communist crackdown on dissidents, Chinese dissidents in the United States were denouncing each other. In a bitter struggle for control of the democracy movement, some of China's best-known current and former political prisoners have accused one another of egotism and treachery–and are embroiled in a $2 million lawsuit.

Relations among some of these activists have been strained for years, but the feud blew up publicly in January, when two groups of Chinese dissidents got into a shoving match at the end of a U.S. congressional hearing on human rights. Immediately after the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Republican Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, gaveled the session to a close, shouting erupted and chairs were knocked over.

The dissent among the dissidents revolves around Wei Jingsheng, often described as "the father of China's democracy movement." After 18 years in Chinese prisons, Wei arrived in the United States in November 1997. Almost immediately he crossed swords with Xu Wenli, one of the founders of the China Democracy Party. Wei said that Xu (who was arrested by the Chinese authorities in December and has just begun a 13-year prison sentence) and Xu's allies acted prematurely and irresponsibly by trying to register the new party last June. Xu replied that Wei's fame had gone to his head.

Coming to America has given dissidents like Wei more freedom to speak–and to squabble. "When inside China, the looming presence of the Communist Party and of oppression is so universal that there is a natural unity," says Perry Link, a China expert at Princeton University.

Lawsuit. America's litigiousness may have rubbed off, too. Wang Xizhe, a U.S.-based activist, and two other members of the China Democracy Party filed a lawsuit in New York last month accusing Wei of slander and seeking $2 million in damages. The suit stems from comments that Wei allegedly made to a Taiwanese magazine, the Journalist, in December. Wei was quoted as saying that the founders of the China Democracy Party were motivated by money and that some of them were Communist agents.

In an interview with U.S. News last week, Wei did not dispute the quotations. He said that the attempt to set up a legal opposition party had flushed activists into the open and given the Chinese government "a reason to throw everyone in jail." His detractors, he added, lack grass-roots support. "Over 95 percent of the democracy movement sees me as their leader," Wei said.

One of the plaintiffs, Wang, responded that Wei is really afraid the new party could compete for donations from abroad. "The international community thinks [Wei] represents the entire movement," says Wang. "We don't necessarily want him to pay [the alleged damages]; we just think he should learn that he is too arrogant."

One point of agreement among the dissidents is that the feud is not helping their cause. It comes at a symbolic moment: This year is the 20th anniversary of the so-called Democracy Wall movement and the 10th anniversary of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. Some observers wonder whether the Communist Party is secretly fomenting the discord. "I would be very surprised if there were not a coordinated effort by the Communist government to sow dissension in the democratic movement," says Link.

The bad blood, however, dates back to 1978-79, when activists plastered a wall in western Beijing with posters calling for reform. In the midst of the Democracy Wall fervor, Wei wrote a tract on democracy, "The Fifth Modernization," that propelled him into the firmament of dissident stars and, ultimately, into jail. "Wei attacked Deng Xiaoping too quickly back then, when Deng still supported our movement," argues Wang. "None of the other dissidents agreed with Wei, and he has always harbored that resentment."

Some dissidents insist that the disputes are no cause for worry. "It is normal to have conflict in such a big movement," says Wang Dan, a leader at Tiananmen and now a student at Harvard University. "We all have the same goal: to make China better and more democratic."

Others fear that the movement may continue to splinter. "Six years ago, we tried to merge two groups into one," says a dissident based in New York. "We ended up with three."