(New York) - Human Rights Watch welcomed the release of Liu Nianchun, one of China's most prominent labor activists, but stressed that China should not be praised for sending one more dissident into enforced exile abroad. It noted that the Chinese government is on the verge of sending another to prison for openly challenging one-party rule: on Monday, veteran dissident Xu Wenli is to be tried on subversion charges in Beijing.

"We're delighted that Mr. Liu has regained his freedom but sorry that he can only enjoy it in exile," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. " We also condemn this latest round of China's cynical hostage politik, with Mr. Liu being released just as another outspoken activist is locked up."

Mr. Liu, whose biodata is attached, has spent the last three years in a labor camp for campaigning for greater political openness in a series of petitions to Chinese authorities and for advocating the right to freedom of association for workers. His name has been on innumerable prisoner lists brought to China by visiting foreign leaders. It is typical of the Chinese government response on such matters that he is being released after his term is up anyway, and that the release comes just as international criticism was building in response to the arrest of Mr. Xu and two other political activists. All three are facing heavy sentences for trying to set up an alternative political party called the Chinese Democracy Party. The timing of Mr. Liu's release may thus be a deliberate effort by Chinese authorities to dilute that criticism.

There is concern that of the three CDP activists, Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and Wang Youcai, Mr. Xu may have the dubious honor of replacing Mr. Liu as the next hostage around whom international attention will focus.

"In this case, we have one release for three arrests," said Jones. "That's a net deterioration, by any objective standard." Human Rights Watch has insisted that the fact that China has now signed two major human rights treaties should not silence public protest of China's human rights practices. One of those treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, guarantees freedom of association and expression. It was the peaceful exercise of precisely those rights that led to the imprisonment not only of Liu Nianchun but also the three CDP activists.

LIU NIANCHUN

Liu Nianchun, a forty-nine-year-old labor activist, has spent almost seven years in prison. His latest term began on May 21, 1995 when he was sentenced to three year's reeducation through labor for working with other dissidents to organize petitions to be sent to the National People's Congress for rectification of human rights abuses. He was charged with organizing an illegal organization, publishing works critical of the government in overseas publications, and having contact with counterrevolutionary groups overseas. He was also accused of accepting contributions from such organizations. His sentence was extended for another six months in May 1997 by Chinese authorities who said he had not reformed his thought. He was reportedly tortured when he protested the extension.

From May 1995, when he was taken into custody, until July 4, 1996, Liu's family had no idea of where he was being held. His wife was finally informed that her husband was detained in Tuanhe Labor Camp in a suburb of Beijing.

Liu Nianchun had been detained twice before. From 1981 until 1984, he was imprisoned because of activities on behalf of his brother, Liu Qing, a human rights activist now living in exile in New York. (He is chair of Human Rights in China.) Liu Qing had been sentenced in 1979 to a ten-year sentence for his pro-democracy advocacy, and Liu Nianchun helped smuggle out his prison writings. In 1994, he was imprisoned for over seven months after organizing a labor rights group called the League for the Protection of the Rights of the Working People. The League called for the restoration of the right to strike and the legalization of independent peasants' and workers' unions. It noted the problems caused by rapid economic growth in China and warned that a rising gap between rich and poor combined with widespread corruption could lead to social unrest unless such unions were permitted.

Liu Nianchun has also taught Chinese at a Beijing middle school.