Human Rights Watch today welcomed the Chinese government's announcement that it is preparing to sign an important United Nations human rights treaty, but urged the Clinton Administration not to abandon its significant leverage for human rights improvements just when Beijing is beginning to respond to the pressure.

Hoping for more last minute concessions from Beijing, the Administration has delayed making a decision on whether to sponsor a resolution on China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which meets from March 16-April 24 in Geneva. The White House also confirmed this week that President Clinton expects to visit China as early as June this year.

"The President's decision to visit China soon has set the stage for a major retreat on human rights," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "If the president visits China without clear human rights preconditions, and also drops any resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, what leverage will the U.S. use to press for concrete progress?"

In a demarche to the European Union last year, the U.S. outlined its key benchmarks for going ahead or dropping a U.N. resolution in Geneva. It has repeatedly communicated the terms to the Chinese government. They include releasing political prisoners on medical grounds, signing and submitting for ratification two U.N. human rights conventions, and resuming discussions with the International Committee of the Red Cross on prison visits. The Chinese government now appears to be on the verge on meeting these very minimal conditions.

But the pattern of flagrant, widespread human rights violations in China and Tibet remains basically unchanged, Human Rights Watch said, and China's rights record deserves condemnation by the U.N. "A resolution should take note of the promises and limited steps China has taken in response to international pressure. But it would be a huge mistake to remove that pressure just as Beijing is beginning to respond," Jendrzejczyk said.

China's foreign minister announced on March 12 that it would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but did not specify when the signing would take place, or when China would ratify the treaty. In addition, the Chinese government may take exception to certain provisions of the treaty. In recent weeks it has quietly approached European governments to assess what reservations they attached when adhering to the treaty. Chinese legal authorities, for example, have expressed reluctance to endorse the treaty's right to freedom of expression (Article 19 of the ICCPR).

Last October, President Jiang Zemin signed another key treaty, the U.N.Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but the National People's Congress (NPC), now in session in Beijing until March 19, has taken no action thus far to ratify it. Neither treaty is fully binding on China until ratification takes place.

Human Rights Watch would welcome the release of Wang Dan, a student activist imprisoned in October 1996 for eleven years on charges of subverting the government, or the release of other political and religious dissidents. But such releases should not take place on the condition they go into exile. And the Clinton Administration should avoid playing China's game of using token prisoner releases as bargaining chips in exchange for Presidential trips or U.N. resolutions. The U.S. should also not attempt to use the ICRC's talks with Chinese authorities on prison access to justify its flawed policy on human rights.

"Clinton seems determined to make history by being the first U.S. president to walk in Tiananmen Square since the 1989 massacre, regardless of China's dismal human rights record," said Jendrzejczyk. A presidential visit should only take place in the context of meaningful steps by Beijing that go beyond dialogue or promises. Those steps should include releasing unconditionally large numbers of prisoners, revising its draconian security laws and abolishing arbitrary administrative detention, protecting freedom of association of workers, easing religious repression, and allowing regular access to Tibet for human rights monitors.