Human Rights Watch World Report 1999: China and Tibet Beijing Spring Turns to Winter
Statement on Human Rights in China
Recommendations for US policy

Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director, Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, January 20, 1999

1) Human rights dialogue:

As you know, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs were critical of the Administration's decision to go ahead with last week's bilateral "dialogue" with China. We were not calling for a cancellation of the dialogue, only for a postponement of this session.

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We felt that the recent conduct by the Chinese government made a dialogue at this time inappropriate and unlikely to be productive. Putting off the dialogue meeting would have sent a clear signal about the importance of human rights to the overall U.S. - China relationship, since the resumption of the official talks was agreed upon during Clinton's visit and was viewed by both governments as the fruit of more constructive relations. Frankly, having monitored the "dialogue" carried out by the Bush and Clinton Administrations since 1991 -- as well as similar talks held with the EU, Canada, Australia, Japan and others -- we are dubious about what these discussions can accomplish in themselves unless they are part of a broader strategy that includes public pressure. Absent transparency in the talks, they simply allow both sides to claim that human rights concerns are being addressed by private diplomatic channels, while carrying on business as usual when it comes to pursuing closer political and economic relations.

The Administration clearly did not have a strategy to follow up on the key human rights concerns the President raised during his trip. And in recent months, the Administration has acknowledged that China has taken steps backwards, not forwards, in many of those areas. According to his public briefing last week, Mr. Koh did bring up many of the same issues in his talks: review of the sentences of "counterrevolutionary" offenders, release of 1989 detainees, opening up Tibet to journalists and human rights groups, and revising the Chinese laws on subversion and reeducation through labor. But again, how does the Administration intend to pursue these objectives?

We would urge Mr. Koh not to go to China later this year, as he has proposed, unless the Administration has negotiated in advance specific steps by China such as reviewing the cases of "counterrevolutionary" prisoners, beginning the process of abolishing reeducation through labor, opening Tibet and Xinjiang to unhindered access by independent human rights monitors, or ratifying without major reservations the two UN covenants. (Again, we would like to stress that the U.S. would be in a much stronger position on this issue if it removed major reservations it placed on the ICCPR and ratified the ICESR.) Otherwise, such a trip will only be used by China for its own propaganda purposes. We would certainly advise Mr. Koh not to try to visit Chinese prisons, as he has suggested; visits to Chinese showcase prisons have in the past been entirely useless, if not counterproductive, and cannot take the place of regular, confidential access by international humanitarian organizations. We also urge the State Department to make public the list of prisoners it gave to the Chinese delegation last week. Beijing has already turned down Mr. Koh's request to visit the Panchen Lama.

2) UN Commission on Human Rights:

We urge the Administration to immediately begin a high level effort to promote a strong resolution condemning China's human rights practices at the next meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, from March 22-April 30. In 1998, the Administration abandoned a resolution at about the same time it announced that Clinton would go to China in June instead of November. The State Department insisted that "there are other, more promising ways to pursue improving the human rights situation." The EU made a similar decision, though pressure is now growing in a number of key European countries to reassess that decision in light of the recent crackdown.

The failure to adopt a resolution over the past six years was largely due to a lack of political will by the sponsors, who did not devote as much time and resources to getting a motion passed as China spent to getting it defeated. It was only under the pressure of Geneva that Beijing took limited steps such as agreeing to visits by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (in 1997) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance (in 1994). That pressure must be resumed, and it is crucial that the U.S. should exert leadership. The effort should begin now, with strong bipartisan support from the Congress. Last year, the Administration ignored Congressional calls for action in Geneva. We hope it takes a different attitude this year.

China has already threatened to cut off the bilateral "dialogue" if the U.S. pursues a resolution. (The EU has received similar threats; its last "dialogue" talks took place in Beijing in October 1998.) The Administration should firmly and publicly reject any such trade-off.

3) High level visits:

Last month, when the verdicts in the China Democracy Party cases were announced, we urged the U.S. and other governments to suspend any high level trade delegations due to visit China as a protest against the harsh sentences. Specifically, we have called on Commerce Secretary Bill Daley to put off a planned visit to China in March leading a delegation of U.S. businesspeople interested in infrastructure investment. The Administration should not send mixed signals by having a major U.S. trade delegation visit Beijing at about the same time as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights is convening in Geneva. What will this say about U.S. priorities?

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji is due to visit Washington DC in April or May for meetings with Vice President Gore and others. The Administration has thus far avoided any hint that the schedule for the visit might be affected by the crackdown on dissent. In fact, last week Sandy Berger, the President's national security adviser, reassured Beijing that the trip was still on. The White House appears to be willing to throw away any leverage such a visit might provide; it should outline clear steps China must take before Zhu is welcomed to DC, similar to the steps recommended above in relation to the bilateral dialogue.

4) Rule of law initiatives:

We support rule of law exchanges, including seminars such as the one on legal protections that took place in Virginia in December as well as exchanges of judges, prosecutors and lawyers. Exchanges at local and provincial levels would be especially useful. But these are very long term initiatives, and cannot in any way replace pressure on the Chinese government--particularly when China is using the rhetoric of the "rule of law" to justify arresting and imprisoning political or religious activists.

But there is much more the U.S. can do. We believe the Administration should develop a comprehensive strategy, working with other governments and NGOs, to press Chinese authorities to greatly accelerate the program of judicial reform that Xiao Yang, the President of the Supreme Court announced last year. He said that some trials would now be open to the public, in order to increase the confidence of ordinary citizens in the legal system. The U.S. should develop a strategy, along with other governments and NGOs, to open all trials--including those held under state security laws--to outside observers including international jurists, diplomats and foreign press. It is also crucial to follow up on the issue of reeducation through labor, which was discussed at the Virginia seminar. The official media has just announced that prosecutors should routinely read suspects their rights in order to prevent abuses, including widespread torture. But how vigorously will this provision be enforced? Reforms in China's laws have often been made on paper with little attention paid to effective implementation.