Human Rights Watch today called for the immediate release of Chinese pro-democracy advocates detained Monday and urged a strong and immediate response by the international community. At least five dissidents involved in trying to organize the Chinese Democracy Party were taken into custody. Two were released, but veteran dissidents Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and Wang Youcai remain in detention and face possible subversion charges. 

"China's actions flagrantly violate its commitments under the U.N. treaties it has signed guaranteeing protection of basic human rights," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Li Peng's December 1 statement that there will be `zero tolerance' for opposition political parties is chilling."

Noting that the detentions were part of an ongoing crackdown on peaceful dissent that began during President Clinton's visit to China in June, the organization urged U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Malaysia last month, to personally intervene on behalf of the detainees. Human Rights Watch also called on Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, who visited China in September 1998, to intervene with the Chinese government at the highest level.

Human Rights Watch urged governments engaged in official "dialogues" on human rights with China to warn Beijing that such dialogues cannot be carried out with any credibility if arrests and detentions continue. Among those holding "dialogues" with China are the European Union, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Japan; the U.S. hopes to restart official talks early next year. China has been offering to hold "dialogues" with government in the hope of convincing governments to scale back public criticism of its human rights record at the U.N. and in other fora.

Li Peng, former premier and currently chair of the National People's Congress, justified the detentions and drew a hard line against any attempts to "negate the leadership of the Communist Party" in an interview with a German magazine. His remarks were released by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

Human Rights Watch said China's dialogue partners needed to publicly challenge Li Peng's statements and end their self-imposed silence on China's human rights practices. "If ever there was a case for strong public criticism, this is it," said Jones.

The U.S., E.U. and other countries agreed earlier this year to drop any criticism of China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in exchange for some commitments by the Chinese government on human rights, including the signing of a key treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. On October 5, 1998, China signed the treaty, which guarantees freedom of expression and association, but it has yet to take the necessary steps to make it legally binding.