China May Open Prisons To Red Cross Inspections

IN an apparent move to end the deadlock with the United States over human rights, China is considering opening its prisons to scrutiny by the Red Cross, a senior Chinese official said on Nov. 9.

Just ahead of a US-Chinese summit in Seattle, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen signaled that Chinese authorities may cooperate with the Red Cross to quiet international criticism and begin shaping a compromise with the US in patching up rocky relations.

The US has pushed China to allow international human rights groups to visit detention centers in order to show ``overall, significant progress'' in improving Beijing's poor human rights record. This is among President Clinton's criteria for renewing China's most favored nation trading status next summer.

``I believe if the International Committee of the Red Cross makes such a request, we can give it positive consideration,'' Mr. Qian said at a press conference for American journalists before his departure for the US. A similar request by the US would be greeted with skepticism, because China rejects US political demands attached to its trading privileges as a policy ``left over from the cold war era.'' Qian ruled out working with other rights groups because China ``can't satisfy the demands of all those organizations.''

To grant renewal of China's most favored nation status next year, the US is also demanding progress on curbing arms sales, granting broader access for American goods in the booming Chinese market, ending the export of products made by prison labor, and reducing China's trade deficit with the US.

Mr. Clinton is scheduled to meet Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president and Communist Party general secretary, on Nov. 20 during the conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) in Seattle. It will be the first meeting between top leaders of the two countries since former President Bush visited Beijing in 1989. Qian ruled out negotiating on issues not directly related to trade, although allowing prison visits indicates Beijing's willingness to try to compromise on the human rights issue without being seen as buckling under to American demands.

Clinton, who ran for president last year on a call to stand up to China, has switched tactics in recent weeks in favor of engaging the Chinese in high-level contacts. Of late, a stream of Clinton Cabinet members has visited Beijing in an effort to make progress on human rights, trade, and military cooperation.

Although international visitors have been allowed into model Chinese prisons before, regular scrutiny by the Red Cross would be a major move toward ending torture and brutal conditions endured by political opponents of the Communist regime.

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