China may let Red Cross visit political prisoners Major shift paves way to Seattle talks

November 10, 1993|By New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- Signaling what would be a major policy shift on human rights, China said yesterday that it would give "positive consideration" to allowing the Red Cross to visit more than 3,000 political prisoners.

Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, speaking with U.S. journalists in advance of next week's meeting between President Clinton and Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, said China viewed the meeting not as a "negotiating session" or for "picture taking," but as a discussion of "a broader and longer-term perspective" on bilateral relations.

The talks are to be held in Seattle during a meeting of national leaders from both sides of the Pacific.

Mr. Qian indicated that Mr. Jiang would take a hard line against Washington's policy of linking trade preferences to China's human rights record, a policy that the United States has insisted on since the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square.

"China does not accept linking questions unrelated to trade," Mr. Qian said. "This method is a means left over from the Cold War era. It is a means to exert pressure, and therefore one cannot expect China to accept this."

Mr. Clinton said in May that "overall, significant progress" in improving China's human rights record would be the main criterion for whether he renewed China's most-favored-nation trade status with the United States next June.

Just three weeks ago, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said he did not think he could recommend renewal of China's trade privileges because of China's human rights record.

But in answer to a question about the desire by rights groups to inspect prisons, Mr. Qian said, "I believe that if the Red Cross does put forward such a request for exchanges, we would give positive consideration to that request."

Western diplomats and human rights workers, who have been urging China to take such a step for years, applauded the move. If carried out, it would reverse four decades of refusals to allow any outside humanitarian organization access to the tens of thousands of Chinese who have been imprisoned, tortured or persecuted for their political beliefs.

The Asian representative for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Christopher Swinarski, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong that the Red Cross would take Mr. Qian's statement "very seriously." Mr. Swinarski hinted that talks on prison access could begin this week when he passes through Beijing on his way to North Korea.

John T. Kamm, a U.S. businessman who has carried on private humanitarian work in China for years and who has been urging Beijing to open its prisons to the Red Cross, characterized Mr. Qian's statement as "a significant change in the opinion of the Chinese government."

"To me, the immediate impact of this announcement is that it delivers a message to every warden holding prisoners that they better clean up their act because there is a very good chance the Red Cross is coming," he said.

In Washington, the State Department said, "Access to Chinese prisons by the ICRC would certainly be an important factor in determining whether or not there has been overall significant progress in human rights."

Apropos the talks in Seattle, business leaders in the United States have urged the Clinton administration and the Chinese leadership to repair their relationship, which has been dominated by Washington's reprisals and threats on trade since China's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989.

The crackdown has been followed by four years of harsh political repression.

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