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China Considers Signing Two U.N. Human Rights Accords

By Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times
BEIJING

China said Thursday that it is "actively considering" signing two U.N. human rights accords that the United States has listed as an important step in normalizing relations between Washington and Beijing.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang hinted that the decision to sign the documents - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and a convention on economic, social and cultural rights - was unlikely to occur before the annual showdown between a U.S.-led bloc of Western countries and China before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March and April.

"We are actively considering these two covenants. We are actively studying and considering the question of joining," Tang said Thursday at a weekly news briefing here. "As to when we would join, that is entirely our own affair."

Western diplomats in Beijing were skeptical of the Chinese offer, suggesting it was part of an international lobbying effort by the Beijing regime leading up to the Geneva meeting.

For the past several years, the United States, with the European Union, has co-sponsored a resolution before the Geneva body condemning China for widespread abuses of human rights, including its harsh treatment of political dissidents and suppression of religion in Tibet and other areas. On each occasion, China has managed to block the resolution by lobbying for support among developing countries, principally in Africa and Asia.

Leading up to this year's Geneva meeting, the United States offered to withdraw the resolution if China met conditions that include signing the two U.N. covenants, releasing a number of political dissidents from its jails and making good with a pledge, first made in 1993, to let the International Committee of the Red Cross inspect China's vast prison system.

Diplomats here say China has said for months that it is "studying" the U.N. provisions - which include a recognition of the right to strike - that would be difficult to fulfill in a period when many of this country's hopelessly inefficient state-owned industries have been forced to lay off or cut pay for thousands of workers.

China has objected to signing the U.N. covenants because they were drafted in the 1960s before it was accepted as a member of the world body and had a voice in drafting them. Chinese officials also like to point out that, although the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was signed by then-President Carter, it was never ratified by Congress.

Sources said that when U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with senior Chinese leaders here earlier this week, she was told not to expect any major gestures by China on human rights before the Geneva meeting.

"They made it clear they would not do anything if it looked as if they were responding to foreign pressure," said one source. "There was no indication of any substantial movement that China would agree to make before Geneva. The United States and China seem destined to go their separate ways."

Still, Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed their displeasure with the annual airing of their human rights problems at Geneva and the huge diplomatic effort they must make each year to table the resolution.

The effort to present a new image is especially acute here after the death last Wednesday of senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. To firmly establish himself as Deng's successor at the helm of leadership, Jiang Zemin, China's president and Communist Party chief, is counting on an exchange of visits with President Clinton planned for later this year and early in 1998. And for the summits to be successful, officials here say, it is important for Jiang not to be dogged by continued attacks on China's human rights record.

In a sign that some movement may be occurring, Wen Wei Pao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper that tends to reflect the Beijing regime's line, reported Wednesday that Wang Dan, a student leader and a prominent Chinese dissident, is willing to accept political exile abroad in exchange for his release from prison on charges that he conspired to subvert the government.