Chinese premier admits human rights deficiencies

In Washington talks, failure on trade front

April 09, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- China's premier conceded yesterday that "there is room for improvement" in his country's human rights policies but said it is "difficult to change overnight."

The admission from Premier Zhu Rongji came as he sought to defuse growing U.S. criticism of Chinese behavior on several fronts while Beijing fights to become a full-fledged player in world trade.

Zhu failed in his chief aim for his U.S. trip -- winning American approval of China's entry into the World Trade Organization -- but the two nations issued a joint statement welcoming "significant progress" in their trade negotiations.

"We have quite a ways to go, but we are very, very pleased, extremely so," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said of the WTO talks.

Zhu addressed Beijing's human rights record near the end of a drawn-out joint news conference with President Clinton midway through his first visit to Washington as premier.

A questioner asked whether, given scathing criticism in a State Department human rights report, "it's possible that there are problems within your country that need to be corrected."

After insisting that "one should not be too impatient," Zhu said, "I concede that there is room for improvement in human rights conditions in China."

As he has before, Zhu noted China's history of several thousand years with a feudal system. "It's quite difficult to change such a mentality or concept overnight," he said.

He also said that some of the people who work in the legal and judicial fields in China "are not that competent."

"So we are willing to listen to you, and we are willing to have channels of dialogue on the human rights question," Zhu said.

Clinton had raised the issue in his opening statement, accusing China of backsliding on human rights. The president, on the defensive for trying to build what he calls a "constructive strategic partnership" with China, appeared at pains to balance cooperation with criticism of Beijing.

Zhu's admission did not seem sufficient to derail an American-sponsored condemnation of China at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, a step taken by the administration under strong congressional pressure.

But it may soften opposition to granting China permanent most-favored-nation trading status, one of the steps needed to complete China's entry into the world trading system.

The Zhu-Clinton meetings, which began informally Wednesday night and resumed formally yesterday morning, were accompanied by strenuous last-minute negotiations in the hope of reaching an agreement on China's entry into the WTO.

Both sides agreed that they are close to a deal in which the United States would support China's entry, but U.S. officials were unwilling to gloss over the remaining differences involving tariffs, financial services and telecommunications.

"Certain differences remain to be resolved in banking, including auto finance, securities and audio-visual services," Barshefsky told reporters.

Besides issuing a statement hailing progress in the talks, the two leaders instructed top trade officials to resolve the remaining problems. China is anxious to join the WTO by the organization's meeting in November.

China has been trying to join the World Trade Organization, formerly called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, for 13 years.

It has largely abandoned its earlier position that it should be given special treatment in joining because it is a developing country. In recent months, it has made some surprising concessions in the areas of telecommunications, agriculture and insurance, according to Andrew Szamosszegi, an economist at the Economic Strategy Institute.

For the United States, China's joining the world free-trading system would generate $300 million in increased annual exports and economic activity, Szamosszegi said. For U.S.-China trade to fit into the system, however, Congress would have to grant China permanent most-favored-nation status.

With evident frustration over the failure to reach a WTO deal, Zhu told reporters the problem lay "not with any big gaps but with the political atmosphere."

In fact, the political atmosphere has seldom been more difficult between the two countries in the decade since pro-democracy activists were gunned down at Tiananmen Square.

American critics of China have been inflamed not only by Beijing's continuing crackdown on opposition groups, but also by a growing number of reports of alleged Chinese theft of American nuclear secrets and by charges that Chinese officials tried to pump money illegally into the 1996 Democratic political campaign.

The latest charge came in a New York Times report yesterday that neutron bomb secrets may have been stolen by a Chinese spy during the Clinton administration. Previous reports of the theft of missile secrets from U.S. nuclear laboratories placed the espionage during the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president.

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