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US Will Stress Better Human Rights In Visit to China

WANG DAN, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, sued the government in December for harassment and was forced into hiding for one month by police death threats. He reemerged last week.

Many of China's dissidents are suffering a winter of repression. They are regularly watched by officials and often ``asked to have regular talks with the police,'' according to one activist.

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Their plight, however, is receiving renewed interest by the United States, eight months after President Clinton shrugged aside Beijing's human rights abuses to extend low-tariff privileges to China, breaking the link between trade and human rights.

The occasion for the revived US interest is a three-day visit to China by John Shattuck, assistant US secretary of state for human rights, starting today.

Before Mr. Clinton's move, the US took a much stronger stance on China's human rights, especially following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Mr. Shattuck enraged Chinese leaders last spring by meeting with Wei Jingsheng, the country's most influential democracy crusader, who was released in September 1993 after almost 15 years in prison. The meeting triggered a Chinese backlash against US pressure for human rights improvements as well as renewed detention for Mr. Wei.

Such US-Chinese acrimony diminished after the Clinton de-linking of trade and human rights. A honeymoon of Chinese pledges to sign deals with US companies and also return to the human-rights negotiating table followed.

But the goodwill was short-lived. Commercial disputes over copyright piracy and China's efforts to enter the new World Trade Organization have once again soured ties and pushed the two economic powers to the brink of a trade war.

Shattuck's visit this week also comes against a much different political backdrop in the US. Before renewal of China's tariff status, the Clinton administration was isolated in pushing human rights concerns as US businessmen bitterly opposed risking their interests in the booming Chinese market.

Now, enjoying private-sector support for its tough demands for better protection of intellectual property rights, the Clinton administration appears ready to risk confrontation over copyright infringement that it wasn't ready to risk over human rights concerns six months ago.

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However, Washington is also trying to revive human rights negotiations as a new Republican-controlled Congress, including influential members favoring more human rights pressure on China, come to power. Among the issues on the table during the senior diplomat's upcoming visit are delays of Red Cross prison inspections, jamming of Voice of America broadcasts, and the fate of Wei, the dissident.

``Human rights is still very much a part of the American agenda,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ``The United States continues to seek dialogue with the Chinese on these issues.''

While welcoming American pressure for human rights change, one Chinese dissident said he expects little to come out of the meetings. Grappling with growing fears over inflation and political uncertainty over the failing health of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, senior Chinese leaders are hardly in the mood for compromise, he said.

Reflecting the government's hard-line stance, 49 prominent dissidents living in exile abroad have been banned from returning home, Human Rights Watch/Asia reported earlier this month.

``I'll probably be included in the usual police roundup during the Shattuck visit,'' says one activist. ``The authorities don't want to take any risks.''

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