BEIJING yesterday expressed a willingness to discuss human rights with Washington in a move that United States diplomats say greatly advances efforts to promote the basic freedoms of China's 1.1 billion citizens. ``With regard to the question of human rights, we may have some differences [with other governments], but we are open to discussion,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Li Zhaoxing.
The new openness indicates that Beijing has dropped a longstanding refusal to hear out foreign governments that are concerned about its alleged human rights violations, according to US diplomats.
The statement yesterday followed unprecedented talks with a US envoy earlier this week, in which China implicity acknowledged the legitimacy of foreign concern over its human rights record.
China previously denounced foreign criticisms of its abuses against prisoners of conscience as interference in its internal affairs.
The consent of Beijing to a dialogue on human rights should reinforce a renewal of relations with Washington, which drastically downgraded ties last year after the violent suppression of liberal protests, say Western diplomats.
Mr. Li declined to say whether China will respond to a request this week by a US envoy that it release all dissidents who have been jailed for their political or religious beliefs.
Also, Li said he did not know of a list of 150 dissidents given this week to Chinese officials for case-by-case consultations by Richard Schifter, assistant US secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs.
Nevertheless, US diplomats believe the new dialogue with Beijing could signal a turning point in how China treats citizens with political views and religious beliefs that defy the official line.
``The fact that we are engaged in a dialogue over human rights to me is a major step forward in the process,'' said James Lilley, US ambassador to China. Despite the new receptivity of Beijing on human rights questions, Mr. Schifter said he would not recommend an easing of sanctions against China upon his return to Washington.
``Changes in our approach to China can only be brought about by concrete changes here [in Beijing],'' he said. The US has already lifted most of the political and trade sanctions that it imposed on China following the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Beijing.
Schifter indicated that he believes Beijing agreed to a dialogue on human rights because of anxiety that Congress will revoke its most-favored-nation trading status.
China enjoys a $10 billion surplus in trade with the US. As Beijing faces economic troubles at home, it has grown more reliant on US trade for a large infusion of precious hard currency.
In three days of meetings that ended yesterday, Schifter says he requested that Beijing offer a detailed description of the condition of the 150 listed detainees and allow US diplomats to attend the trials of political dissidents.