- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

BEIJING Chinese dissidents have written an open letter urging delegates to this month's Communist Party congress to release political prisoners and expand direct elections for officials.

The writers of the letter, many of them veteran political campaigners, warned that China's economic development was being handicapped by a lack of political freedoms and trust, despite a decade of growth that has greatly elevated living standards for some.

It was a reminder of an issue that has received almost no open discussion in mainstream political circles ahead of the party's 16th National Congress, which begins tomorrow. The conference is expected to pick new party leaders, none of whom is considered a political reformer.

"Improvements in economic development cannot cover up more and more obvious problems of deep social peril," said the letter, signed by 192 dissidents from 17 cities and provinces throughout China. A copy was e-mailed to journalists yesterday by the New York-based group Human Rights in China.

The press office for the party congress said yesterday it hadn't received a copy of the letter and had no comment. It's unlikely the letter will have much direct impact.

Few of its signers are known other than to a small number of dissidents and the foreign media. And there are few channels for its wider distribution in China, because the government controls the news media and Internet.

Meanwhile, communist authorities have tightened security in Beijing in hopes of preventing protests, detaining or stepping up surveillance of dissidents.

They have also began a campaign to clean up the city and crack down on petty crime before the congress. Numbers of police in the streets, at the capital airport and on subways have risen.

On Monday, a former government official who served a jail term after calling for free elections was taken away by police, his sister said.

She said his family hadn't heard from him since then.

Fang Jue was bundled into a car outside his home by policemen, and police later searched his apartment, removing his computer and other possessions, said his sister, Liu Jing.

Mr. Fang was not listed as a signer of the open letter and there was no immediate indication why he would have been a target for authorities.

Many of the letter's demands date to the reform movement of the 1980s that ended with the bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Since then, China's tiny dissident community has been under pressure from security forces. Key members have been jailed or forced into exile.

The letter calls for re-evaluation of the 1989 protests, which were officially labeled an anti-government riot. Victims' reputations should be restored and harassment of their families ended, the letter said.

Among its other demands:

•Allow the return of exiled dissidents, the release of political prisoners, and restoration of civil rights to both.

•End restrictions on the freedom of reformist former Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, who sympathized with the protesters for democracy and has not been seen in public since June 1989. He is believed to be under house arrest.

•Revise laws to ensure basic human rights and freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and protest.

•Expand elections to include all local official posts and councils and a gradual, five- to 15-year transition to direct elections for top national leaders.

"This way," the letter said, "we could end the embarrassing situation of China being the only major nation in the world that is not democratic."

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