China and Red Cross agree to negotiations on visits to prisoners Officials seek progress on human rights concerns

March 02, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING -- In a step toward improving human rights, China reached an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross yesterday to reopen negotiations on unfettered access to thousands of political and religious prisoners.

The Communist Party leadership had authorized initial negotiations with the Red Cross in 1994 but then refused to take any concrete steps toward allowing a program of prison visits by Red Cross officials.

Representatives of the Red Cross came to Beijing last week only after insisting that any meeting with the Chinese would be focused on making progress in restarting substantive talks. One Red Cross official said he expected the first "expert level" meeting with the Chinese to take place in April or May.

Beijing's decision to resume the negotiations could reflect a high-level change of thinking, Western officials said. Other officials asserted that the proof will be in whether Beijing follows through this time. In nearly five decades of Communist rule, China has never allowed the Red Cross access to a prisoner.

If China were to accept Red Cross prison visits, it would fulfill one of the conditions set forth last summer by the Clinton administration as part of a deal to avoid a confrontation at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, which meets from March 10 to April 18. In six out of the past seven years, the United States has co-sponsored a resolution calling for an investigation into China's human rights record. Each time, China has defeated the resolution in the 53-nation forum.

Other elements of the deal would require that China release a list of eight political prisoners, including Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, two of the country's most famous dissidents, who are both serving long prison terms. China would also sign two U.N. human rights covenants. Finally, China would agree to resume a broad dialogue on human rights with the United States.

Chinese and U.S. officials have been trying to make progress so that a breakthrough could be timed for the visit of Vice President Al Gore, who is expected at the end of March.

In late 1993, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen surprised human rights organizations by saying Beijing was ready to open talks with the Red Cross after decades of refusals. But the following spring, after Clinton broke the linkage between U.S. insistence on human rights progress in China and the granting of trade privileges, China abruptly walked away from the Red Cross initiative.

In January 1995, after three rounds of talks between the Red Cross and Chinese Ministry of Justice officials, a senior Chinese prison official met with journalists here and said, "The premise of prison visits by Red Cross officials is out of the question in China."

The official went on to deny that there were any political prisoners in China and added, "China will not be subject to regulation" by a foreign entity.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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