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China Will Let American View Conditions at Prison Facility

By Steven Mufson
Washington PosT

China, which long has rebuffed inquiries into its human rights policies, allowed a U.S. Customs Service official to inspect a prison factory last month and said it would consider an appeal by an American businessman for China to release more information about political prisoners.

Chinese officials last week told business consultant John Kamm that they had allowed a U.S. Customs agent to visit a prison facility in Shanghai on April 21. A U.S. official yesterday confirmed that a Beijing-based U.S. Customs official made the inspection.

The inspection should be routine under procedures to which China agreed as part of a memorandum of understanding on prison labor with the United States, but the last visit took place approximately a year ago.

China failed to live up to the accord after relations with the United States deteriorated last year. In a telephone interview, Kamm said that Ministry of Justice officials told him they would not schedule another prison check until they saw the report from this one, which is due within 60 days of the visit.

The Ministry of Justice also accepted from Kamm a list of prisoners about whom he is seeking information. For years, Kamm has waged a personal campaign to prod the Chinese government into improving its human rights practices. He said officials advised him to "wait for the dust to settle" on certain controversial issues. A former Occidental Petroleum Corp. executive, the San Francisco-based Kamm runs a consulting firm for companies investing in China.

Although China has agreed to discuss human rights with the United States, it adamantly has refused to meet with the State Department officials in charge of rights issues since bilateral relations worsened in a dispute over the status of Taiwan. China views Taiwan as a renegade province, though it long has been self-governing and held its first fully democratic presidential election in March.

"It's quite clear that it's a partial resumption of the human rights dialogue. They have moved a little bit," said Kamm, who met with officials from China's Supreme Court, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry and several influential government-sponsored think tanks.

But any movement was little, indeed. Chinese officials also said the government would not resume a human rights dialogue with the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights until the State Department dropped efforts to get resolutions passed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemning China's rights record.

Any gesture toward a more compliant human rights stance would be timely for China, because the U.S. Congress is preparing its annual debate on whether to strip China of its most-favored-nation trading status with the United States.