Beijing appears to have decided to stop accepting lists of prisoners whom foreign governments want released, a prominent human rights advocate says.
John Kamm, a US businessman turned activist who has helped win clemency for many Chinese prisoners, predicted that Beijing might end its regular human rights dialogues with Western nations and Japan.
"I have been advised that a policy decision was made in mid-2012 to no longer accept prisoner lists on the margins of bilateral rights dialogues," Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, said in Washington on Friday.
"The days of submitting big lists of prisoners are probably over."
Beijing refused to take one such list during talks with the European Union last year and a Chinese leader told a senior US official, "No one will be released; we don't have to do that any more," according to Kamm.
But Kamm said there could be "some flexibility" in enforcing the policy, adding that his foundation - which is non-governmental and stresses a respectful tone - remained in touch with Chinese officials on prisoners.
The shift might reflect growing Chinese confidence or simply decisions by individual policymakers in Beijing who found the tone adopted on the issue "insulting", Kamm said.
He appealed to Beijing to release political and religious figures, saying clemency "is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of confidence and strength".
Kamm noted that US President Barack Obama's administration had won few concessions from China on human rights.
By contrast, China earlier freed prisoners to meet specific goals, including ensuring the attendance of US president George W. Bush and other leaders at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and winning normalised trade relations with the United States during Bill Clinton's presidency.
Kamm said the release of prisoners paid dividends for China, which avoided lasting economic sanctions in the wake of its June 4, 1989, bloody crackdown on democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
"Had China lost access to the American market in the early 1990s, it is doubtful that the Chinese economic model would have taken [off]," he said.