China to open 5 prisons for U.S. inspectors

January 21, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- China has agreed to U.S. demands that it open five prisons and their record books to U.S. inspectors searching for evidence that products made by prisoners are being shipped to the United States, says Treasury Secretary Lloyd M. Bentsen.

Even as the agreement was being announced yesterday, agents from the U.S. Customs Service visited the prison-run Red Star Tea Farm in southern China.

"We got good cooperation," U.S. Ambassador Stapleton Roy said.

However, a leading human rights activist and expert on the Chinese prison system described the Bentsen announcement as "window dressing" that recycled an earlier agreement.

In fact, the Red Star Tea Farm is a familiar Customs target. Its products were banned from the United States after a 1992 inspection.

"It frankly doesn't amount to much," said Robin Munro, Hong Kong director of Asia Watch, a human rights monitoring organization. "It is progress of a sort, but it ranks fairly far down the list of human rights issues compared with massive imprisonment of political dissidents and torture."

The willingness of Chinese officials to allow such inspections -- especially of documents indicating the destination of the prison-made products -- has become a central issue in the debate leading up to a decision by President Clinton on whether to renew by July 3 the preferential trade treatment granted to China.

It is unclear just how far the inspections can go in determining whether, for example, sneakers, wrenches or tea purchased in U.S. stores actually comes from Chinese prisons, which house political dissidents, common criminals and people jailed for their religious beliefs. Documents can be forged, or hidden from inspectors, and paperwork indicating destinations can be rewritten after inspections are made.

When he issued a one-year renewal last year, Mr. Clinton made adherence to certain human rights standards, including a halt of shipments of prison-labor products to the United States, a condition for continuing the trade benefits in 1994. Under U.S. law, it is illegal to import prison-made goods.

A senior U.S. official here said yesterday's agreement is intended to speed up the inspection process.

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