BEIJING -- The first "human rights" delegation from a Western nation arrived here yesterday to begin a 12-day fact-finding tour that the group's leaders claim represents a breakthrough in prodding China to accept international concern over its human rights abuses.
But Chinese authorities will not even refer to the nine-member Australian team as a "human rights" delegation, labeling it a "parliamentary" delegation instead.
Also, the group's initial requests to speak to jailed political dissidents here ran into enough resistance from China that its trip was almost called off last week. It remains unclear whether these requests will be met.
Political analysts here believe that China is using the exercise to cast a more positive image abroad, particularly at a time when the U.S. Congress is debating renewal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status.
China continues to strike a stridently defensive stance on other issues at the core of the congressional debate, such as China's overseas arms sales.
In recent months, officials here have softened their combative reactions to Western criticism over the treatment of political and religious dissidents, reflecting their fear of losing the MFN benefits.
Australian Sen. Chris Schacht, the delegation's leader, said last night that he had few illusions that his group's visit would lead to "people being released from jail or China changing its fundamental positions" on human rights.
Nevertheless, he said, the very fact of the group's visit represents success in inducing Chinese officials "to enter into a dialogue on human rights issues and to accept that dialogue whether they like or not."
The Australian group will visit at least two Chinese prisons during its tour of Beijing, the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, Tibet and Shanghai, Mr. Schacht said. But one of these jails -- the Beijing No. 1 Prison -- is often used by China to showcase its prison conditions and does not house dissidents.
The group's leaders also said China has not placed limits on its members' seeking "unofficial contacts" during their tour.
They would not comment on reports from Australia last week that they had requested a visit with Wei Jingsheng, a well-known dissident who was sentenced to 15 years in jail in 1979 for his involvement in a democracy movement.
In a rare interview last week with two American journalists, a high-level Chinese justice official said that Mr. Wei, who has reportedly developed mental and physical problems while in jail, was in good health in a labor camp 100 miles east of Beijing.