BEIJING -- A high-ranking U.S. State Department official, in key talks here yesterday on human rights, trade and weapons proliferation, urged China to grant an amnesty to dissidents imprisoned for "non-violent, political acts."
The fate of political activists in Chinese jails was raised by Robert Kimmitt, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, in seven hours of discussions with Chinese officials. China has acknowledged that about 5,500 such dissidents are imprisoned; the actual number may be much higher.
Mr. Kimmitt is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit China since December 1989, when National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft came here.
Mr. Kimmitt's two-day mission comes as Sino-American relations have sunk to their lowest level since the June 1989 crackdown here in which hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, pro-democracy protesters were killed.
Bilateral relations recently have been afflicted by mounting U.S. concerns over China's rapidly growing trade surplus with the United States, piracy of U.S. copyrights here, allegations that Chinese prisoners have been used to manufacture exports, China's alleged role in worldwide proliferation of weapons, and the continued pattern of human-rights abuses here.
At stake for China is renewal of its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status with the United States, which allows Chinese imports under the same low tariffs as most other countries.
If the Bush administration recommends the renewal of China's MFN standing -- which must be done by June 3 -- it would now face strong congressional opposition.
The Bush administration has argued that the United States could push for reform by maintaining dialogue with the Chinese.
At a news conference today before leaving for Tokyo, Mr. Kimmitt said he delivered a strong message to China "that an MFN decision would be made within the political context of concerns about issues of non-proliferation, human rights and trade."
However, China's official news agency yesterday offered its own tough reply, quoting Qian Qichen, China's foreign minister, as saying that China already has made "great efforts" to improve bilateral relations and further improvements would require "joint efforts from both sides."