China Strikes Awkward Pose Of Reform

March 06, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- With the approach of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's critical visit here this week, the Chinese government is moving at cross purposes on human rights matters.

The mixed signals could prove hazardous for Sino-U.S. relations, particularly in these sensitive months leading up to the June deadline for annual renewal of China's special trade status with the United States.

On one hand, Chinese officials went to new and unusual lengths last week to explain their side of the human rights conflict, particularly to some U.S. reporters.

These public relations maneuvers included a specially arranged trip for five U.S. reporters to a prison -- where they had the chance to view through a window, but not interview, a prominent jailed dissident who had alleged that he had been tortured in prison.

On the other hand, more than a half-dozen outspoken dissidents in Beijing and Shanghai were detained last week during a visit to China by the State Department's top human rights envoy, John Shattuck.

Dissident freed

The detained included China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who reportedly was freed yesterday after more than a day in custody in Beijing's suburbs.

The widely divergent Chinese actions may reflect jockeying within the Beijing regime over how to respond to mounting U.S. pressure over China's human rights abuses.

Many analysts believe that while China's Foreign Ministry may be trying to appease Washington in order to preserve the country's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade standing with America, its internal security forces may be trying to show it will not cave in to outside pressure.

The resulting confusion has been such that, as Mr. Christopher left for Asia Friday, the State Department refused to rule out a cancellation of his visit to China.

In the very likely event that Mr. Christopher's visit proceeds as planned, it could be a critical juncture in this year's version of the annual Sino-U.S. struggle over whether the United States will renew China's MFN status this June.

Washington has said that China must show "overall significant progress" in order to maintain the lucrative trading status this year, and several U.S. officials have recently warned China that it has not come close to meeting this criterion.

While maintaining that it would never kowtow to such threats, China has taken some steps in response to foreign concerns over human rights.

In recent years, these have ranged from willingly meeting with foreign human rights delegations to issuing a lengthy white paper on the issue, one that stressed collective economic development needs over individual civil liberties.

China has said it would consider allowing the International Red Cross to inspect its prisons, and it is mulling over doing away with the vague legal charge of "counter-revolutionary activities" that has been widely applied against dissidents here.

Moreover, several dozen political prisoners have been freed from Chinese jails in the last few years -- leaving at least several thousand still behind bars.

Among the freed is Mr. Wei, who in a meeting last Sunday with the visiting U.S. envoy, Mr. Shattuck, urged the United States to take a tougher human-rights stand against China.

More detentions

But Friday, after Mr. Shattuck had left Beijing, Mr. Wei was taken into custody by Chinese police -- part of a larger round-up of well-known dissidents here and in Shanghai.

The detentions, mostly brief, appear to be aimed at quelling any sign of protest during Mr. Christopher's visit and the annual meeting of China's legislature, which opens Thursday.

Yesterday, after President Clinton called Mr. Wei's detention "not helpful" to Sino-U.S. relations, Mr. Wei called his secretary and told her he had been released in a Beijing suburban county and would return later in the day, the secretary said.

However, Mr. Wei had not contacted her again by last night.

Several foreign reporters were threatened with detention by public security officers if they continued simply to wait nearby on the street to watch for Mr. Wei's return.

Hours before, other foreign reporters were overtly courted by China's State Council, the equivalent of its executive cabinet.

They were taken to a prison in northeastern Liaoning Province, where officials tried to show them that a prominent jailed dissident, Liu Gang, is in good health.

In a letter smuggled from prison last year, Mr. Liu, 33, alleged that he had been tortured there.

Peculiar gesture

China rarely lets foreign reporters visit jails where political prisoners are held, and this effort at a form of openness backfired.

Instead of interviewing Mr. Liu, the reporters only were allowed to glimpse him passing by through a tinted, second-story window and later on a closed-circuit television broadcast that lacked sound, according to an Associated Press account.

"That will be just like seeing him," the prison warden reportedly told the reporters, who traveled 11 hours each way by train to talk with Mr. Liu, imprisoned because of his activities during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

"This is believable, isn't it?" the warden insisted.

As it turns out, that may well be among the key questions that Mr. Christopher will be weighing next weekend in regard to China's confusing -- even self-contradictory -- approach to showing "overall significant progress" on human rights.

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