A SENIOR United States diplomat signaled forward momentum yesterday in resolving the American standoff with China over trade and human rights.
But, wrapping up three days of talks in Beijing, John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, cautioned that China still has to satisfy US concerns before its low-tariff access to the American market will be renewed in June.
Citing a ``more positive atmosphere,'' Mr. Shattuck noted that negotiations with the Chinese ``have deepened and become more business-like and intense.
``There has been some progress, and more progress is needed,'' he said at a press conference. ``I think we have made crystal clear that the key is overall and steady progress on human rights.''
The US official's visit was aimed at prodding China into improving its human rights record enough to win extension of most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status from President Clinton. He precedes Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who starts a visit March 11 and could sharpen the outlines of the compromise with China on human rights, some Western diplomats suggest.
Following campaign pledges to make tougher human rights demands on China, Mr. Clinton in June 1993 extended MFN for another year on the condition that Beijing significantly reduce human rights abuses. The US is urging China to end exports produced by prison labor, allow more freedom of emigration from China, release or account for more than 200 political prisoners, allow free radio and television broadcasting into China, and end oppression in Tibet.
Shattuck, who met with Deputy Foreign Minister Qin Huasun and other officials, said the US is having a ``continuous and very strong, effective dialogue with the Chinese'' on accounting for 235 political prisoners included in a list compiled by the State Department last fall. At a recent meeting in Paris, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen assured Mr. Christopher that China would provide detailed information on the prisoners.
The US emissary also said he held ``very constructive and positive discussions with the Chinese government'' on winning medical parole for some prominent dissidents, including Chen Zeming and Wang Juntao, leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.
Shattuck reported progress in winning international access to monitor Chinese prisons, loosening emigration restrictions, securing release of some prisoners, and formalizing legal procedures. China is in the midst of discussions with the International Committee of the Red Cross on opening Chinese prisons to international visits. He also said there have been advances in permitting a freer flow of international broadcasting into China.
At stake in the standoff are Chinese access to the crucial American market, where China sold $40 billion in goods in 1993, and growing US business ties to China. According to the World Bank, ending the special trade status would place more than 90 percent of China's exports at risk.
This year's human rights review comes amid growing weariness over the annual confrontation and speculation that the president could eliminate conditions on China's trading status this year. Although the Clinton administration has come under strong congressional pressure for a tough human rights stance and more than just cosmetic releases of famous prisoners, there is also a growing recognition of China's strategic importance in checking the nuclear weapons ambitions of its longtime ally, North Korea.
Recently, often volatile Sino-American relations took forward steps with agreements to end a dispute on textile quotas and to allow a state-run Chinese firm to launch American-made satellites this year. China has agreed to stop sidestepping US textile quotas and crack down on transshipments of textiles, to allow surprise inspections of factories by US officials, and to face penalties for cheating.
Still, relations continue to seesaw. Worried that the Communist Party's hold on power was loosening, Beijing has recently tightened up on religious practices and has detained and expelled seven foreign missionaries. The Chinese government also has placed restriction on satellite television by limiting the installation of dishes and banning most individuals from tuning into foreign broadcasts.
Shattuck refused to comment on reports that he met Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent dissident, on Sunday before the start of his talks. Mr. Wei told reporters that the US ``should be more firm'' in its negotiations with Beijing. The dissident was released last fall in the run-up to Beijing's unsuccessful bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games. But he has been repeatedly warned by security officials to stop talking to foreign reporters and publishing his writings overseas.