AS the Clinton Administration wrestles with the future of trade relations with China, a new human rights report accuses Chinese authorities of jailing and torturing scores of little-known democracy protesters from 1989.
Claiming that human rights abuses have worsened in recent months, Human Rights Watch/Asia, formerly known as Asia Watch, also says in a report to be released today that Beijing tried to stage-manage a planned prison inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and continues to export prison-made products despite an agreement with the United States to end the practice.
The new indictment comes amid Beijing's mixed signals to the US on human rights. In a nod to American demands that China improve its human rights record to secure low-tariff trading privileges, Beijing has released two prominent dissidents from 1989, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, in the last month.
Facing mounting pressure from US businessmen worried about getting cut off from the vast Chinese market, President Clinton must decide by June 3 whether China has made enough progress on rights to justify extension of most-favored-nation trading status.
But fearing growing discontent as the fifth anniversary of the 1989 crackdown approaches, authorities have detained lesser-known dissidents and hundreds of others in a massive law-and-order dragnet throughout the country.
In its report, ``The Price of Obscurity in China,'' Human Rights Watch/Asia charges that ``Beijing appears to have opted for a policy of conspicuous crackdown mixed with minimal, superficial concessions, while at the same time intensifying and extending overall repression of dissent.''
The new Human Rights Watch report focuses in-depth on Beijing No. 2 Prison and the Qinghe (Prison) Farm near Tianjin where about 200 Chinese, ranging in age from 17 to 71, are detained. They are among more than 500 cases of 1989 protesters, only 29 previously known to international human rights advocates, documented by the organization.
Suffering from their obscurity, the ``counterrevolutionary'' prisoners have been abused by guards and beaten by other detainees instigated by prison officials.
Political inmates were abused and sent to solitary confinement for protesting prison conditions and, in the instance of Shi Xueshi, serving 16 years for ``counterrevolutionary arson,'' for inserting a note in a package destined for export. After the note was discovered, Mr. Shi was beaten with electric batons and sent to solitary confinement.
Human Rights Watch contends that Chinese authorities meticulously planned a ``charade'' prison inspection visit for the ICRC, first scheduled for January 20, 1994 but later canceled by Beijing. Overseen by a senior government minister, a massive clean-up was launched, sick prisoners were moved, and inmates were allowed to take their first hot showers in a year.
The group claims that the export of forced-labor products continues despite official denials. Foreign visitors to institutions using forced labor to make exports are taken to special workshops established for this purpose and run without prison labor.
Human Rights Watch documents an additional 88 new detentions this year alone. Now linked to growing social unrest in the countryside and cities, ``political dissent in China can no longer be dismissed as simply the isolated or marginal concern of a dissatisfied elite,'' the report says. ``Contrary to the government's accusations, the problem appears to stem not from the `bourgeois liberal' West, but [is] increasingly rooted in local concerns.''