WRAPPING up four tense days in Beijing, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher signaled yesterday that the United States and China could still be on track to resolve their trade standoff by June.
So badly does the Clinton administration seem to want to end the annual dispute over human rights and China's trade privileges that Mr. Christopher overlooked widespread dissident arrests and official Chinese rebukes and pronounced that differences were ``narrowing somewhat.''
At a press conference, he indicated that, while there was no breakthrough, his visit ended on a promising note with some minor Chinese concessions on human rights. But Christopher will likely face congressional criticism for his optimistic assessment, Western diplomats say. His visit was overshadowed by widespread detentions of dissidents, and planned protests at the annual session of the Chinese parliament were blocked.
Christopher said Washington is looking for enough ``overall significant progress'' in China's human rights record to justify renewal of low-tariff access to the lucrative American market. The US, whose businessmen fear being blocked from the booming Chinese economy, is a crucial market for about one-third of China's exports.
``I wouldn't describe it as a breakthrough.... We began to narrow differences,'' he said. ``More work clearly needs to be done.''
Explaining that China now understands US insistence that extension of most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status be linked to human rights improvements, Christopher said, ``I doubt we would have achieved such clarity without the advantage of this visit.''
At a separate press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen took a more conciliatory tone that contrasted sharply with the earlier angry recriminations of the Chinese leadership. Chinese officials, enraged when a senior US emissary, John Shattuck, met with prominent dissident Wei Jingsheng two weeks ago, condemned US meddling in what it perceives as internal matters. Mr. Qian yesterday insisted that the two countries will differ on human rights ``for a long time to come'' but said that should not disrupt trade.
Christopher reported that the Chinese are willing to discuss all the areas of human rights targeted for improvement by the US. He also reportedly proposed a widely expected compromise to end the annual detailed review of Chinese human rights practices and require only general progress. The US official also said that he urged Qian to ``release all those Chinese citizens who were arrested or detained at the time of my arrival here.''
The two sides signed a pact on prison labor that formalized a previous understanding on the rights of US diplomats to inspect Chinese prisons suspected of using forced labor to make exports. Discussions with the International Committee of the Red Cross on visits to Chinese prisons will begin in a few weeks, and efforts are underway to allow easier emigration of Chinese.
At a meeting between the two countries' top diplomats yesterday, Christopher said China provided an accounting of 235 Chinese prisoners requested by the US, and that China has promised another list of 106 Tibetan prisoners in the future.
Western diplomats pointed out that the record listed which prisoners were sentenced and which were under investigation, but did not divulge the sentences.
Further talks are planned on ending Beijing's jamming of Voice of America radio broadcasts into China and setting up a committee to discuss conversion of defense industries.