With trade talks looming, Beijing frees founder of independent union


BEIJING -- China, in a move perceived as an attempt to influence renewal of its favorable trade status with the United States, has released from prison the founder of its first independent trade union in four decades, the international human rights group Asia Watch said yesterday.

Han Dongfang, 27, a railway worker who founded the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation during the 1989 pro-democracy protests, was released Sunday after 22 months in jail without a trial, the New York-based human rights organization reported.

The group's sources in China say that Mr. Han, who has been labeled "China's Lech Walesa," is recuperating at his home from a critical lung ailment he developed while being held in Beijing-area prisons since shortly after the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations June 3-4, 1989.

Yesterday was International Labor Day, a public holiday in socialist nations, and Chinese court officials were unavailable for comment on Mr. Han's status.

Mr. Han's trade union, the first independent workers' body to be established under Communist rule here, played a prominent role in the 1989 protests, publicly rejecting China's official unions and quickly creating offshoots in a dozen cities.

As workers have tended to receive the harshest punishment in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protests, human rights activists had particularly feared for Mr. Han.

Asia Watch officials said they welcomed his release but noted that perhaps thousands of other dissidents remained jailed "for doing nothing more than peacefully expressing their views. We hope it will not take life-threatening illnesses or a debate on economic sanctions to move Beijing to release these others."

Mr. Han's release comes as Chinese officials face increasing pressure to alter their hard-line stance on human rights and certain trade and weapons-sales practices to satisfy U.S. critics, some of whom have been lobbying to punish China by ending its most-favored-nation trading status with the United States.

The third-highest-ranking State Department official, Undersecretary Robert M. Kimmett, is to arrive in Beijing on Sunday and is expected to strongly link these concerns with the possible loss of China's MFN status.

Despite some congressional opposition, the Bush administration opted last June to renew MFN for another year. The president at that time defended renewal as necessary to maintaining a dialogue with China, and last week he reiterated virtually the same position: "What I have tried to do with China is to make clear our concern about human rights abuses . . . but recognize that cutting off all contacts or trying to drive them to their knees economically is not the way to effect change."

But with the approach of the annual renewal date of June 3, the possibility that Congress will veto a positive presidential recommendation on MFN appears to have gained strength because of mounting concerns over China's intractability on human rights, its alleged use of prison labor to make exports, its possible role in worldwide weapons and nuclear proliferation, its rapidly growing trade surplus with the United States and allegations of certain unfair trade practices.

In recent weeks, Chinese officials repeatedly have warned the United States that trade is a cornerstone of bilateral relations and that ending MFN would severely harm relations.

Some U.S. organizations, such as the U.S.-China Business Council, have been arguing for MFN's renewal, saying its removal would hurt U.S. consumers, would destabilize the economy of neighboring Hong Kong and would strengthen the hand of hard-liners within the Chinese leadership.

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