BEIJING -- After seven months of secret diplomacy, U.S. and Chinese officials seem to be within striking distance of a breakthrough in their long-standing dispute over human rights. At issue is the fate of thousands of Chinese political and religious dissidents held in prisons, labor camps or at home under heavy guard or surveillance.
Under the terms of a deal that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will seek to nudge toward agreement when she visits Beijing today, China would agree to sign two key United Nations covenants on human rights, release a representative group of up to eight political prisoners and restart talks with the International Committee of the Red Cross aimed at establishing a program of prison visits to determine the status of the thousands of prisoners of conscience in China.
In return, China could expect to bring an end to the annual confrontation over its human rights record at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
For President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin, this prospective breakthrough comes at a time of opportunity and risk.
With the death last week of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, it accords the new generation of Chinese leaders an early chance to end the period of harsh repression that has marked the years since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
To emerge from their long "defensive crouch," as former U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy once called it, China's new leaders would have to stand up to the hard-line forces in the Communist Party. Those forces see any act of political tolerance or human rights concessions to Washington as appeasing those who would like to topple Communist rule.
It is anyone's guess as to whether the Chinese feel confident enough to go forward. But U.S. officials point to two important factors.
First, the government's leading hard-liner, Premier Li Peng, has confidently predicted in internal leadership discussions that he can pull off an acceptable deal with the Americans that would assist China's case before the Human Rights Commission.
The commission, which meets March 10 to April 18, will again take up a resolution calling for an investigation into human rights conditions in China. Beijing has defeated the resolution each time, often by narrow margins.
Chinese officials say such an achievement by Li would boost his campaign to gain a prestigious party post and retain supervision of China's foreign affairs after he steps down next year.
The second factor is that Chinese and U.S. officials have known since November that Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement who was sentenced to 14 years in prison last fall, is willing to go into exile in exchange for his freedom.
Wang is one of the best known of the eight dissidents on the list presented in July by Anthony Lake, then Clinton's national security adviser, in talks with Communist Party leaders. Wang's release and arrival in the United States, which has already privately conveyed a willingness to provide him asylum, would be a dramatic 11th-hour concession by China.
Since November, China has released three other political
prisoners on the list, apparently in response to Washington's requirements: Chen Ziming, sentenced as one of the "black hands" behind the 1989 demonstrations; a dissident from Inner Mongolia named Ulan Shovo; and Xi Yang, a journalist.
For Clinton, who took significant political risks in breaking the link between China's human rights performance and its trade privileges imposed by his predecessor, a demonstration of tangible gains would vindicate his instinct to persevere with a policy of high-level dialogue and engagement with Beijing.
But Clinton, whose presidency faces an extended inquiry into Asian fund-raising efforts during his re-election campaign, will need concessions that are able to withstand congressional scrutiny.
One difficult issue for Clinton is deciding how many prisoners among the eight cases raised is enough to declare progress. One is Wei Jingsheng, China's best-known dissident, who has served 17 years of a total of 29 years in successive prison sentences and for whom Clinton once showed great public concern.
Pub Date: 2/24/97