January deadline for progress on rights issue

WASHINGTON has given Beijing until January to make significant progress in human rights - or risk having its Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status revoked next June.

The blunt message was delivered by United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher during an hour-long meeting in Seattle yesterday with Chinese Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, John Shattuck, also presented a new list of Chinese political prisoners to the Assistant Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Huasun during their four-hour talk.

After the meeting Mr Christopher said the two countries had started a series of intensive contacts to improve their relationship, adding that the initial steps had been promising.

But he said much remained to be done on human rights, arms proliferation and trade.

In a briefing a senior US official told reporters ''there has not been overall significant progress'' on human rights, although the Chinese reaffirmed their willingness to permit Red Cross visits to political prisoners and promised to facilitate processing of exit visas for a handful of dissidents.

Another US official said, while China had admitted holding 3,300 prisoners it termed ''counter-revolutionaries'', it had resisted American demands to improve its human rights policies.

Washington is calling on China to release political prisoners, allow dissidents to emigrate and halt exports of prison-made goods.

''The seriousness of the need for early progress was emphasised, the sense of urgency was emphasised'' in the Qian-Christopher meeting, the official said.

When asked if China was prepared to make a gesture on human rights, Mr Qian said: ''In everything we do, we have to be responsible to the Chinese people. We are not making gestures because we are not actors.'' Xinhua (the New China News Agency) last night quoted Mr Qian as telling Mr Christopher he was ''satisfied over the positive development in Sino-US relations recently''.

''Sino-US relations have never been founded on the identity of social systems, ideology and values, but on common interests,'' Mr Qian said.

The Vice-Premier expressed the hope that both countries would continue their efforts to surmount the current difficulties in their relations and promote steady progress.

American and Chinese sources said that while on the surface Chinese officials had stuck to their position of asking Washington to separate human rights from trade issues, in private they promised to give serious considerations to Washington's demands.

The sources said a resolution on the human rights issue might come during the weekend summit between President Jiang Zemin and President Bill Clinton.

American officials pointed out the January ''deadline'' was set because it was then that the State Department publishes its annual report on human rights.

Moreover, debate on China's MFN status would heat up in Congress early next year.

''You're going to see congressional hearings on China [on renewing MFN status] when Congress re-convenes in late January or February,'' an American official said.

Hours before he met Mr Qian, Mr Christopher told an audience at Washington University that Mr Clinton would be forced to withdraw MFN status if China's progress on human rights did not show significant improvement in the next few months.

''Recent problems have created the risk of a downward spiral in our relationship [with China],'' he said.

Meanwhile in a dinner speech yesterday to a gathering of American businessmen, Mr Jiang underscored the potential of the China market.

''If political distractions and artificial obstacles could be removed, the potential for economic co-operation between China and the US will be tapped more fully and the benefit will be even bigger,'' Mr Jiang said.

The President said the American business community had been an important force in sustaining the growth of Sino-US relations.

''I highly appreciate your efforts for the promotion of people-to-people exchanges and the closer economic co-operation between our two countries,'' he said.

Hong Kong, which has feared recent run-ins between China and the US - the territory's two biggest trading partners - would cost the mainland its MFN status, is also looking to the Jiang-Clinton summit to seal an era of greater co-operation.

Secretary for Trade Brian Chau Tak-hay said yesterday: ''There has been a downward spiralling of relations between China and the US, giving concern everywhere and in Hong Kong.

''We are therefore encouraged to see this meeting is going to take place, and hope that through face-to-face discussion of our two largest trading partners there will be an easing of relations between the two, and an improvement in the general environment.'' Loss of China's MFN is reckoned to shave around one to two per cent off Hong Kong's GDP growth.

The US business community has also been lobbying Mr Clinton for improvement of Sino-US ties.

The Boeing Company, one of Seattle's foremost employers, forecasts a total market for commercial jet aircraft sales in China of US$40 billion (HK$308.88 billion) through to 2010.

Director of Boeing's public affairs, Craig Martin, said: ''We have been heavily involved in discussions, with Congress putting forward our view that there should be permanent MFN status for China.

''Our perspective is that the more free and open intercourse there is between nations, the better for all concerned, and that to attempt to isolate an entire nation is not an effective means of improving either the economy or the conditions in the country.''