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China has unveiled a new "kinder and gentler" strategy for dealing with accusations of human-rights violations. Not surprisingly, the softer approach coincides with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which opened in Geneva this week. The United States has agreed to sponsor a resolution censuring China, and Beijing wants to make sure it never comes up for a vote, or if it does, that it's defeated.

Only once, in 1995, did the U.N. Human Rights Commission come close to censuring China. But Beijing cares deeply about the loss of face it would suffer should a critical resolution actually be adopted. In order to keep such measures off the agenda, it has gone to extraordinary lengths to lobby governments world-wide. These efforts, however, should not be mistaken for real progress. Indeed, while Beijing plays the PR game abroad, it is escalating its clampdown on its own citizens.

I first noticed Beijing's change in tack earlier this month while listening to Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen describe his country's human rights policy at a U.N. workshop on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region. As the Washington director of Human Rights Watch 's Asia Division I was surprised to be invited to Beijing for the workshop. In fact, given the role of my organization as a critic of the government's abuses, I never expected to be in China at all.

Nonetheless, I was immediately struck by Beijing's new softer line on human rights. Gone at least for the moment was the harsh rhetoric about "noninterference in the internal affairs" of China. Instead, in an opening message read to the delegates, President Jiang Zemin stressed that in the 21st century, China's leaders must "run the country according to law {and} ensure our people more extensive rights and freedoms," while also touting the "spectacular results" on human rights already achieved by China. Top Chinese officials have become cheerleaders for "the rule of law," both to counter complaints domestically about corruption as well as to rebut criticism from abroad.

Qian Qichen lectured us on the benefits of the rule of law, but reminded his largely Asian audience of recent colonial history in the region, and added a warning that "democracy and the rule of law are no country's monopoly and don't come under a unified model."

Along with other Chinese officials, Mr. Qian declared that deciding how international human rights standards are applied is up to each government depending on "national conditions." And the way to deal with differences is through "dialogue and exchanges on the basis of equality."

Beijing's softer rhetoric will be useful for attracting U.N. Commission votes from other developing countries, and it will also help to get China's major trading partners off the hook. Many of them would prefer to limit discussion of human rights to rather sterile "dialogues," underway between China and the European Union, Japan, Canada, Brazil, Australia and others.

Yet even while the U.N. workshop was underway in Beijing, dissidents were being detained, the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy activist Xu Wenli went on a hunger strike, and security was stepped up to prevent Falun Gong members from demonstrating outside the hotel where the U.N. was meeting. The legal reforms that China has adopted in recent years, such as amendments providing greater safeguards for detainees, have not deterred Beijing's intensified crackdown. Enforcement remains inadequate, and the legal changes thus far in no way address the need for more fundamental political reform.

This put Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, in an awkward position. Her office organized the conference, and she had hoped to finalize an agreement with China on legal and technical exchanges -- a useful long-term initiative. But she could hardly turn a blind eye to the abuses taking place right under her nose.

What Mrs. Robinson did was principled and tactically wise. At a packed press conference, she condemned the recent crackdown on free expression, freedom of religion and association. While hoping to continue her talks with China's leaders, she clearly recognized that it is in their interest to cooperate with the U.N., and Beijing cannot afford to cut off talks.

Governments should follow Mrs. Robinson's example and refuse to be silenced. Other countries should be lining up to co-sponsor the resolution to censure China, and to oppose any attempts by China to keep it off the Commission's agenda. This will help strengthen the U.N.'s hand in dealing with Beijing, while also providing urgently needed moral support to those trying to change China from within.

When faced with a credible campaign in Geneva in the past, China has taken some limited but positive steps forward -- such as signing U.N. human rights treaties or releasing high-profile political prisoners. After many years of stonewalling, Beijing is starting to use some high-flown language on human rights and the rule of law. But the international community has to make sure those words actually mean something.

Mike Jendrzejczyk is Washington Director for Human Rights Watch 's Asia division.

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