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Chinese dissidents go public with worst feud in years

January 24, 1999
Web posted at: 6:19 PM EST (2319 GMT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Exiled Chinese dissidents are waging one of their nastiest public feuds in years, complete with mudslinging and shoving, at a time when renewed repression back home gives them greater need to unite.

Some of the biggest names in the dissident community have been engaged in the name-calling, accusations of spying and even jostling at a Congressional hearing this month on human rights in China.

The fight involves at least two groups: activists trying to establish an opposition party called the China Democracy Party and the most famous exiled dissident, Wei Jingsheng, and his supporters.

The dispute began heating up days before a Jan. 8 hearing by the House International Relations Committee. Angry that they weren't invited to testify, the Democracy Party activists sent faxes to the media calling Wei a "phony" and a "rootless bubble star" with "poor vision and moderate IQ."

The hearing ended in a scuffle when one of the activists, veteran dissident Wang Xizhe, began shouting that he was unfairly denied a chance to testify. Shoving and shirt-pulling began, prompting police to restore order and clear the room.

The Chinese dissident community has long been splintered into dozens of groups and foundations, squabbling over leadership and trading accusations of misuse of funds and other faults.

Both factions agree that the shouting and scuffling in Congress was an embarrassment to all dissidents and a victory for their common foe: the Beijing government.

The democracy activists argued they were best qualified to testify because their colleagues have been the target of the latest crackdown on dissidents in China. Three of China's most prominent dissidents -- Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin and Wang Youcai -- were sentenced to jail terms of up to 13 years in December for their involvement with the China Democracy Party.

Lian Shengde, a dissident leader who sides with the Democracy Party activists, accused Wei and a New York-based group, Human Rights in China, of refusing to back the party because they fear it would eclipse their celebrity, resulting in a loss of funding.

"Wei is worried about losing his status as the most famous dissident," said Lian, a student leader of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations in 1989 and now the head of the Washington-based Free China Movement.

Wei, who spent 18 years in prison before being exiled to the United States in 1997, laughed off the accusations. "I would welcome someone to become more famous so that I could take a rest," said Wei, a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

The infighting has much to do with Marxist-Leninist environment most of the dissidents grew up with, said Orville Schell, a veteran Sinologist who has written several books about China.

"It's not surprising if you're reared on authoritarian models of political behavior that stress manipulating factions, purging your adversaries and intolerance, that people who theoretically believe in democracy have a hard time behaving," said Schell, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Time and again, the dissidents have failed to unite. The military assault that ended democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 raised hopes that the killings would help unite the dissident community, which swelled with new arrivals of exiled student leaders. But quarrels began anew over leadership and funding.

Wei's arrival sparked new hopes that the former electrician and soldier, mentioned for years as a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, would lead the dissidents. But that never happened.

Schell said Wei has not been willing to make the compromises necessary to work with others.

"Whatever you say about Wei Jingsheng, he's certainly proved his mettle in prison," Schell said. "But he's not really a real team player unless he's leading the team."

Wei attributes the lack of unity partly to infiltration by agents sent to the United States by the Chinese government to pose as dissidents and sow discord. It would be impossible to get everyone to cooperate because there's "a small group of people who only specialize in starting fights," he said.

The accusations continue to spin. Wang Bingzhang, a China Democracy Party co-founder, says Wei's suspicions could be correct, but he accused Wei of claiming that one of the party's leaders in China was a spy -- a charge Wei denies.

Wang said he invited Wei and his supporters to meet and try to work out their differences.

Wei wasn't willing to talk. "If they don't seriously admit they made mistakes, there's no reason to talk to them," Wei said.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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