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Albright Meets with Chinese After Deng Xiaoping's Death

By Tyler Marshall
Los Angeles Times
BEIJING

In their first talks with a senior Western diplomat since the death of "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese president, premier and foreign minister on Monday conveyed a message of continuity and underscored their interest in China's having a broad, positive relationship with the United States.

But in more than four hours of talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the Chinese gave her no hint of immediate breakthroughs on specific issues, including the contentious subject of human rights, a topic she has called "a signature element in our relationship," U.S. officials said.

"I don't want to speculate whether I was able to narrow the differences, we'll have to wait and see," Albright told reporters after her long session with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen and shorter talks with President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng.

Albright met the top Chinese officials on the eve of Deng's state funeral - a moment many analysts are calling a watershed in the history of modern China and a time of potential political change.

Although Deng effectively relinquished the reigns of power three years ago, his very presence allowed Jiang, his anointed successor and a relative political unknown, the luxury of time to begin the process of consolidating his power, analysts have noted.

A senior U.S. official who accompanied Albright said she left all three meetings convinced that Jiang now is firmly in control of China. "It was clear in the succession of meetings that Jiang, as they (the Chinese) put it, is the core' of the leadership."

That Albright's sessions with the Chinese leaders was not postponed was widely interpreted here as one more signal of Jiang's desire to keep a momentum going in high level Sino-American talks. Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to visit here next month; an exchange of presidential visits is planned before the end of next year. Many China scholars believe that a Jiang state visit to Washington would prove his effectiveness on the world stage, and, thus, help cement his efforts at political consolidation at home.

Albright's meetings with Chinese leaders were the last stop on Albright's 10-day inaugural world trip as America's top diplomat. She visited nine nations in Europe and Asia that she said epitomized the role of the United States as the globe's "indispensable nation."

Despite the high profile Albright gave to the issue of human rights in her meetings, there was no hint of a softening in the Chinese position. "I said I'd tell it like it is and I told it like it is," she said.

An Albright aide who was in the meeting with Qian quoted her as telling the Chinese foreign minister, "I've come a long way so I must be frank," before noting specific concerns about restrictions placed in China on dissidents and religious freedom. The secretary of state also expressed U.S. concerns about allegations of Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet.

The aide said Qian listened, then said simply, "I appreciate your frankness."

Unlike some of her other diplomatic counterparts, Albright did not present the Chinese, say, with a list of prominent dissidents in China that the United States hoped Beijing would free; before and after her meetings with Chinese leaders, U.S. officials cautioned against expectations of a breakthrough.

"The assumption that there is some magic fix that we can create that will have a significant effect on the human rights situation in China I regard as folly," commented one senior U.S. official.

This official noted that, as part of a low-key discussion of human rights launched last July by the United States and the European Union, Beijing was given a list of eight dissidents, seven of whom were jailed and one under house arrest; three of them have since been released.

This approach, the official said, provides a guide for how the West may get the Chinese to make genuine progress on human rights - action in which China would agree to: release dissidents; resume talks on allowing Red Cross visits in Chinese prisons; sign the U.N. human rights covenants; and enter permanent discussions on human rights.

In exchange for these steps, the United States and EU would halt their annual practice of formally condemning Beijing at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. That commission is scheduled to meet next month and Albright said America now plans again to condemn China on its human rights record. "I made it clear that if there were no further progress, we expect we would be going forward in Geneva, but there is still time," she said.