UNITED States officials are puzzled and dismayed by China's decision to formally arrest leading dissident Wei Jingsheng. In Washington, senior officials called Ambassador Li Daoyu to express concern at the treatment of Wei - for 18 months the top prisoner on America's human rights watch list. Sources said the administration was baffled as to why China should have started discussions on opening human rights dialogues with the US and then taken the hardline stance on Wei, so soon after positive talks between President Jiang Zemin and his counterpart Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. Wei headed a list of human rights concerns Clinton officials handed to Mr Jiang's team when the two leaders met in New York last month. China's announcement may well have scuppered Beijing's chances of getting the US to agree not to push another anti-Beijing resolution at the United Nations human rights conference in Geneva in March. 'Wei Jingsheng in prison or going to trial obviously will be a factor,' said a senior US official. 'Our posture will be to look at the human rights situation at the time, and make a decision.' He added: 'Obviously, this is a troubling development, and rather puzzling, coming on the heels of the Gore-Jiang meeting. 'The fact it came two days after the meeting suggests they were thinking about US-China relationships in determining the timing.' And the official conceded: 'We truly don't know what direction China intends to go on this.' An official State Department statement made it clear the US saw it as a setback after the positive moves of recent weeks. 'We regret the Chinese government's decision to formally charge Wei Jingsheng. 'President Clinton and other senior US officials have repeatedly raised his case with senior Chinese officials . . . calling for Mr Wei's immediate release. 'We continue to be concerned about Mr Wei's condition, since neither his family nor friends have seen him in over a year and a half. 'We have remained consistent that Mr Wei should not be subject to prosecution for the peaceful expression of his political ideas.' Human Rights Watch/ Asia demanded that the administration come to a decision by sponsoring a resolution criticising China during the Geneva meeting. 'China's obvious contempt for the rule of law requires international response. 'If Beijing is eager to overcome the stigma of the Beijing massacre, this kind of attack on peaceful citizens is not the way to do it,' said the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth. Mr Roth said the resolution should go beyond last year's text, by calling for the appointment of a special UN official to probe China's human rights abuses.