Tiananmen protesters linger in jails, report says

May 19, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Almost five years after the Tiananmen Square protests, human rights groups say that it's likely that thousands of demonstrators still languish in Chinese jails -- the latest salvo in the run-up to President Clinton's decision on China's trade status.

Two U.S.-based groups, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, released today a new report documenting 500 previously unknown prisoners in the Beijing area alone, who were arrested after hundreds of the 1989 protesters were killed by Chinese troops.

More than 200 of these newly discovered cases involve people still in jail, said the report, which is based on information gathered covertly by Chinese human rights activists from prisoners' families and former prisoners.

The inmates are not students -- all of whom the Chinese government claims to have released -- but include peasants, factory workers and cadres, the report said.

"For the most part," it said, "they are people who were seen on television screens around the world in May 1989, marching in the streets, blocking the path of the troops entering the city . . . and throwing rocks and paving stones at the tanks and armored personnel carriers."

As these new cases all come from Beijing -- the part of China most scrutinized by foreigners -- their belated discovery "serves to demonstrate that known cases of political and religious imprisonment in China represent only the tip of the iceberg," the report said.

"In view of the nationwide scope of the 1989 demonstrations, we can safely assume that thousands of prisoners whose names we do not know still languish in prison for their role in those protests."

The release of the report is timed to exert pressure on China, coinciding with the approach of President Clinton's decision on whether China has progressed enough on human rights to warrant renewal of its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for another year.

The deadline for the MFN decision is June 3, the same day as the beginning of the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.

Billions of dollars on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are at stake in the decision, which Mr. Clinton's executive order last year said should be based on whether China has progressed in seven areas -- from releasing jailed dissidents to allowing unhindered foreign broadcasts.

Mr. Clinton reportedly is leaning toward renewing the lucrative trade status, with perhaps relatively minor conditions, such as higher tariffs on some products of China's state or military industries and a conduct code for U.S. firms in China.

In a letter to the president, nearly one-fourth of the members of the House of Representatives urged him Tuesday to extend MFN unconditionally and set up a bilateral human rights commission with China to manage the long-running dispute.

But with the decision apparently not settled, today's release of the human rights report is only the latest in a flurry of MFN-related actions and counter-actions this week, among them:

* The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied a Western wire service report that leading dissident Wei Jingsheng is being prosecuted on treason charges. Mr. Wei, released in September after 14 years in jail, was arrested by police in early April.

Mr. Wei had angered Chinese leaders by urging a U.S. envoy to maintain pressure on China over human rights.

* China dismissed as "sheer fabrication" a recent series of British Broadcasting Corp. reports on Chinese labor camps. The reports -- done in collaboration with Harry Wu, a former labor camp

inmate and now a U.S.-based activist -- claim that China has 10 million prisoners, with many forced to make products for export.

Today's report says that hundreds of thousands of latex gloves exported to the United States are inspected by inmates at the Beijing No. 2 prison.

Ending the export of prison-made goods to the United States is a condition for renewing MFN.

* A group of U.S. congressional staff members, who toured Tibet secretly recently, reported that Tibetans are living in "an atmosphere of fear" under Chinese rule.

The United States just affirmed its long-held stance that Tibet is part of China. The move -- in line with China's position -- was aimed at pushing Beijing into talks with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader. But China still won't hold such talks unless the Dalai Lama gives up his quest for an independent Tibet. This issue is the MFN renewal condition on which there's been the least progress.

* China has reportedly said that it will allow a team of American technicians to come to talk about halting its jamming of Voice of America radio broadcasts.

China promised that it would deal with this issue, another MFN condition, when Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher visited in March.

Such steps do not mean that Beijing has changed its stance.

"China will not . . . allow any country to impose its ideology or concept of values on China," the state news agency Xinhua recently quoted Premier Li Peng as telling Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

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