The trial of China's most prominent dissident, Wei Jingsheng, 45, was supposed to be open to the foreign press. But in the end, reporters were barred from witnessing the precooked verdict: 14 years' imprisonment plus three years' deprivation of political rights for "conspiring to subvert the government." This surely is a stiff penalty for Wei. But it may be a big blow to China's relations with the outside world as well.
At a time when the world's most populous nation is eager to join the international community, its hardline tactics against human-rights activists are certain to create an outcry in the U.S. Congress, which has already voted to censure Beijing for arresting Wei. And it's not going to fare better in Europe, particularly in Germany, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl is said to have quietly made appeals on Wei's behalf.
So why is Beijing behaving like this? One key reason is that the top leadership in China is insecure. Deng Xiaoping, a strong leader with revolutionary credentials, threw the outspoken Wei in jail back in 1979. Deng's designated successor, Jiang Zemin, who is much weaker, seems to perceive Wei as an even greater threat.
Jiang may also be feeling pressure from hardline, anti-U.S. factions. His recent announcement to reduce tariffs on 4,000 goods in a bid to meet World Trade Organization requirements, outlined in part by U.S. trade officials, is apparently meeting resistance. By doling out a stiff sentence to Wei, Jiang could be showing he can hang tough with the Yanks.
But Wei's harsh sentence will help to reinforce China's image as a repressive society. Furthermore, the U.S. and other Western countries will be more reluctant to bestow upon China any honors that will heighten its international prestige, such as allowing it to host the Olympic Games. And the U.S. could press ahead with a motion to censure China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission this March in Geneva.
If China's leaders think that taking a tough stance on Wei Jingsheng is a sign of strength, they are deluding themselves. More than anything else, it highlights the weakness and vulnerability that afflicts Beijing today.