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 Tuesday, 1 December, 1998, 17:31 GMT
Xu Wenli: 'Godfather of dissent'
Xu Wenli, pictured in 1993
Wenli is one of China's most prominent dissidents
Xu Wenli has been a thorn in the side of Chinese authorities for years.

Described as "the godfather of dissent", he is a man of enormous experience in the dissident movement, and is a figurehead for a younger generation of activists.

In my mind I've never treated [the Chinese authorities] as enemies

Xu Wenli

Correspondents say Mr Xu is arguably the most important Chinese opposition activist since the expulsion in 1997 of Tiananmen Square protest leader Wang Dan.

Mr Xu's political involvement began in the late 1970s, when he was active in the Democracy Wall movement - named after a wall in Beijing which was used as a noticeboard for dissident views.

In 1981, Mr Xu was imprisoned for his part in Democracy Wall and was held for 12 years, spending much of that time in solitary confinement.

Party crushed

Mr Xu described his imprisonment philosophically as a "required course".

It certainly did not break his resolve and he regained his status as a leading activist after his release in 1993.

He was arrested in December 1998, after trying to set up the China Democratic Party (CDP) as the first opposition party in Communist China.

The CDP did not enjoy official recognition and it was swiftly crushed by Chinese authorities.

Mr Xu was charged with endangering state security and jailed for 13 years, along with dozens of other party members.

Balancing act

Mr Xu did his best not to antagonise the authorities while campaigning for multi-party democracy - a balancing act made possible by an unprecedented atmosphere of openness in Beijing in recent years.

Chinese police detain dissident
Dissent is not tolerated in China

He routinely informed the police when he was leaving Beijing to visit other dissidents, and even tried to make friends with the plain clothes police officers who kept him under 24-hour surveillance.

"I've always had person-to-person relationships with the people that follow me," Mr Xu said in 1998.

"In my mind I've never treated them as enemies."

During US President Bill Clinton's visit to China that year, Mr Xu complied with the authorities' request that he and his wife to accompany them on a "holiday" at a riverside resort - an outing which conveniently kept Mr Xu out of the limelight during the presidential tour.

Incompatible ideals

Nevertheless, Mr Xu is a man dedicated above all to political freedom.

This means his aims are ultimately irreconcilable with a government which is committed to one-party rule.

His arrest in 1998 came shortly after National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng announced that any political organisation promoting multi-party democracy "will not be allowed to exist".

Mr Xu is the first person convicted of endangering state security to be released from prison early.

But more than 16 years incarceration have taken their toll on Mr Xu's health - he contracted hepatitis B in jail in 1999 - and his condition has progressively worsened.

See also:

24 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
24 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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18 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
17 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
16 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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