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The Role of the International Community
China succeeded in convincing virtually all industrialized countries to substitute “dialogue” for “confrontation” and public criticism during 1998. But the lack of transparency in the various “dialogues” made it impossible to assess whether they were a source of real pressure for change. “Rule of law” programs to promote long-term penal and judicial reforms largely replaced the focus on political prisoners and dissidents on most governments’ agendas. High-level state visits to China, from U.S. President Bill Clinton in June to French Premier Lionel Jospin in September and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in October, underscored a common policy of engagement. International attention to repression in Tibet may have increased during the year, but other key concerns were virtually ignored, including workers’ rights, women’s rights, the death penalty, and repression of ethnic minorities. Few sources of international leverage remained for ending current abuses or pressing for concrete improvements.

United Nations
For the first year since 1990, neither the U.S. nor E.U. tabled a resolution on China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission session in Geneva. China invited High Commissioner Mary Robinson to visit China and Tibet, which she did between September 6 and 14, and promised to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it did in October. Even though both the invitation and the promise to sign the ICCPR were of long standing, both were used by the West to justify dropping the Geneva resolution, and the fact that both the visit and the signing took place were interpreted as the Chinese quid pro quo. It was unclear when China would ratify either the ICCPR or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which it had signed in 1997.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported to the commission in April on its visit to China and Tibet in October 1997. The report failed to stress the lack of an independent judiciary, but it did strongly criticize the “vague and imprecise” offenses in the Chinese criminal code including those related to state security.

China blocked a Security Council briefing by Mary Robinson in February and again in June, on the grounds that human rights issues belonged only in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. It apparently feared that to speak of human rights issues in the Security Council could lead to a discussion of Tibet.

European Union
The E.U. led the way in capitulating on human rights. With the U.K. holding the rotating E.U. presidency from January to July, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Beijing in January. Qian agreed to Robinson’s visit, signing the ICCPR, and scheduled another E.U.-China human rights dialogue. Cook presented an E.U. list of political prisoners.

China, meanwhile, launched an aggressive effort to lobby E.U. states to drop any resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Premier Li Peng visited the Netherlands and signed a $4.5 billion deal with Royal Dutch Shell; other Chinese leaders visited Denmark, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, key countries that had supported previous Geneva resolutions. The Danish foreign minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, signaled a major shift when he told Vice-Premier Li Lanqing that Denmark would deal with rights concerns “through dialogue and open and frank discussion” only. France actively lobbied other E.U. governments to abandon a resolution in Geneva.

On February 23, European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels and agreed on the new approach and formally decided that no E.U. member states would support action in Geneva even if other countries were to sponsor a motion.

A meeting of European and Chinese legal experts took place in Beijing on February 23-24. Some E.U. countries’ ambassadors to China urged China to undertake specific reforms, warning that a “dialogue without results will soon run out of steam and will not be acceptable to public opinion in Europe.” But privately, European diplomats were told that China intended to attach reservations on key provisions of both U.N. covenants.

On March 25, the European Commission presented a new policy on China which was formally adopted by the Council of Ministers in September. The new policy paper “Building a Comprehensive Partnership with China,” stressed expanding economic relations while strengthening dialogue on political issues, including human rights. That theme dominated talks in London on April 2-3 between the new premier, Zhu Rongji, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Commission President Jacques Santer, and Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan. Blair said a positive atmosphere had been created by the E.U.’s decision to abandon a resolution in Geneva and declared that the thaw in relations would lead to rights improvements. He confirmed that three E.U. ambassadors would visit Tibet, but China made no substantive concessions. A joint E.U.-China statement affirmed both sides’ interest in getting China into the World Trade Organization and looked toward “continued E.U.-China dialogue on all aspects of human rights,” supported by technical assistance projects to promote the rule of law. Regular summits would be held annually.

A series of high-level visits to China by European leaders later in the year were aimed at solidifying the improved relationship between China and European Union countries, and included visits by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in September and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in October. (Switzerland, not an E.U. member, went along with the new approach, hosting a conference in Beijing in October on the rule of law.) Prime Minister Jospin traveled with fifty business leaders and signed major trade deals. In meetings with authorities, he raised concerns about detentions of activists and carried a message from the Dalai Lama. Prime Minister Blair carefully avoided any public criticism of China’s rights abuses; in private discussions with Premier Zhu Rongji, he objected to the detention of dissident Xu Wenli during his visit and raised Tibet.

The E.U.-China human rights dialogue continued with a two-day meeting in Beijing in October, involving experts and officials from China and the E.U. troika countries of Austria, Germany, and Britain. Two European-based nongovernmental organizations took part at E.U. request: Amnesty International and SOS Torture.

United States
In the U.S., Congress increased pressure on the White House to proceed with a Geneva resolution, with the Senate and House both voting in favor of such a resolution in March. But China’s announcement on March 12 that it would sign the ICCPR gave the administration the cover it needed to drop Geneva, which it did on March 16, removing a major irritant in time for Clinton’s trip.

To head off legislation requiring sanctions against governments that restrict religious freedom, the White House sent a high-level delegation of U.S. clerics to China and Tibet (February 9-March 1). The delegation handed over a list of thirty religious activists imprisoned or harassed and met with Jiang Zemin, but while the visit was hailed by the U.S. and China as evidence of a new spirit of cooperation, the delegation received no commitments that religious controls in China would be eased.

Senior U.S. officials traveled to China in April and May, seeking progress on human rights in connection with Clinton’s visit. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during an April 29-30 visit, suggested that some of the remaining post-1989 sanctions on trade programs might be lifted in exchange for such progress. Tibet was prominent on the agenda during the pre-summit talks, with the U.S. pushing for a major breakthrough to help justify the president’s trip. But by setting the dates for the visit without preconditions, the administration squandered much of the leverage the summit offered.

In the weeks leading up to Clinton’s China tour, Congress stepped up pressure on the administration by adopting legislation that would increase Customs Service monitoring of prison labor exports; increase funding for Radio Free Asia; deny visas and travel funds for religious persecutors and officials involved in forced abortions; and increase funding for human rights monitors in the U.S. embassy. The final budget for fiscal year 1999 included $22 million to Radio Free Asia to increase broadcasting to China for twenty-four hours a day and for other broadcasts.

Intense debate in the House on the president’s decision to extend Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status to China for another year focused on the upcoming summit and Clinton’s decision to participate in an official welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Members of both parties urged him to boycott the ceremony and urged Clinton to meet with dissidents. The House voted on July 23 (264 to 166) to reject a motion overturning Clinton’s renewal of MFN status. Also in July, Congress voted an amendment to change the designation MFN to “NTR” (Normal Trade Relations). But the administration did not push a proposal for permanent NTR for China, thus abolishing the annual renewal process; instead it used the prospect of doing so as a carrot to get concessions on China’s WTO entry.

The President’s China trip was considered a success by officials in both countries. In an unprecedented move, Jiang agreed to have their June 27 news conference broadcast live on Chinese television, although later coverage in the official media was heavily censored. The two leaders had lively exchanges on the 1989 crackdown, Tibet, and other rights issues. Clinton revealed that in private talks, he had urged release of political prisoners and review of those sentenced under security laws that since had been repealed. But he turned aside numerous petitions from dissidents and avoided any meetings with them or family members of the 1989 victims. In Hong Kong, in response to Congressional and media pressure, Clinton held a separate meeting with democracy leader Martin Lee; he also met with other elected legislators and leaders of civic groups.

Clinton’s official talks with Jiang and other leaders did not yield visible progress in terms of prisoner releases, commitments to ease religious persecution, or review of security laws. Of fourteen agreements reached at the summit, only two dealt with human rights: resumption of the bilateral dialogue cut off by Beijing in 1994 (an initial meeting was expected to take place early in 1999); and expanded rule of law exchanges.

Pacific Rim Countries
Other governments also stressed dialogue. Australia’s second human rights dialogue took place in Canberra and Sydney (August 10-11). A program including judicial exchanges and a project on women’s rights were announced, and Beijing agreed to send an observer to Jakarta in September for a meeting of representatives from national human rights institutions in Asia.

Canada hosted a human rights seminar in Vancouver in March focusing on China and invited other Asian governments to send delegates. But Canadian NGOs were denied access to the meetings, which covered a wide range of issues such as the role of judiciary, limitations on freedom of expression, and the relationship between civil and political and

economic and social rights. No public report was issued.

Japan made a major effort to strengthen relations with Beijing. The first official visit by a Chinese defense minister to Tokyo took place in February. China received more Offical Development Assistance (ODA) than any other country in 1997 (the last figures available), under a five-year package: $576.8 million. There was no linkage between ODA and China’s poor human rights record. Instead, Japan focused on its bilateral human rights dialogue with China, with meetings in October 1997 in Tokyo and in June 1998 in Beijing. Japan urged China to sign and ratify the two U.N. covenants and raised the issues of arbitrary detention, status of the so-called “counterrevolutionary offenders,” and conditions in Tibet. There was no public report on the dialogue.

Tokyo allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Japan in April despite intense Chinese pressure, including protests by the Chinese foreign minister to then-Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi. Jiang Zemin was due to make an historic visit to Tokyo in early September—the first visit ever by a Chinese president to Japan— but the trip was delayed due to serious flooding in China. It is now scheduled to begin on November 25.

World Bank
The level of World Bank funding to China remained high. Loans in FY1998 totaled U.S.$2.5 billion and included power projects, highway construction, health services, and $150 million for the Tarim Basin (II) irrigation project in Xinjiang. There were no initiatives by any of the bank’s donors to limit funding or to condition multilateral assistance on human rights or workers’ rights improvements.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
State Control of Religion: Update #1, 3/98





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