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China freedoms going, going, gong

Mary Robinson
The U.N.'s Mary Robinson raised individual cases  

By CNN correspondent
Jaime Florcruz

BEIJING, China -- In Imperial China, a person with a grievance could get a hearing from the emperor or his staff if he could ring the "imperial gong" located near the Emperor's bedroom.

But what is the modern-day gong? Where can desperate Chinese turn to for redress of their grievances?

In a curious way, visits to Beijing by dignitaries work like the gong. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip in September, for example, highlighted human rights cases and prompted releases and expulsions of detained scholars.

For the same reason, last week's visit of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson was worth watching.

Chinese and human rights groups overseas hope she can press for substantive progress even while she engages with the Beijing government.

"I am very pleased to have cooperation," Robinson tells CNN, "but I also speak out about my concerns and I raise them with the members of the government. I will be raising individual cases, individual issues of concern."

Unconditional release

Some issues, such as political repression and imprisonment, are old.

Demands for the unconditional release of political dissents like Xu Wenli, a co-founder of a pro-democracy party, and Li Hai, who was sentenced in 1996 to nine years in prison for documenting cases of political detainees, have been unmet.

Use of torture and forced confessions to obtain conviction are widespread. The current "Strike Hard" campaign against crime has spiked China's already high rate of executions.

Efforts to abolish the much-abused "administrative detention and "reform through labor" have stalled. Corruption in Chinese courts and police agencies are prevalent and cause miscarriage of justice.

In part to address these issues, Robinson signed on Thursday an agreement continuing cooperation under which her office's experts will provide China with technical assistance in human rights in 2002.

Robinson says the program covers more seminars of prisons, training of law enforcement officials, human rights education in schools, and proposals to reform the reeducation through labor system.

Robinson says: "The very good thing about this workshop is, we are talking about human rights education definitely linked to the international human rights standards, the covenants, the Universal Declaration.

"And there's a good balance between civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. This will imbibe a culture of human rights in China."

Tentative willingness

Chinese Vice Foreign Ministry Wang Guangya says the agreement "proves that China's government is serious about cooperation with other countries and U.N. agencies."

But Beijing's willingness to engage is obviously tentative. Indeed, Robinson's trip comes at a time when British law professor Sir Nigel Rodley had just resigned as the U.N. special investigator on torture.

Rodley had been negotiating with Beijing the terms of his visit since 1999, insisting on unfettered access to prisons as well as detainees, during a fact-finding mission in line with his independent global mandate.

Beijing had only offered him a "friendly" visit with limited access. Robinson urged Beijing to let a U.N. investigator look into China's "very widespread" use of torture.

"It will be Nigel Rodley's successor," she says, "but I think it is very important that it take place early next year."

Excuse to suppress

Jiang and Robinson
China's President Jiang Zemin with Robinson  

Meanwhile, Robinson is also tackling a current issue: the attempts by "a number of countries", including China, to use the war on terrorism as an excuse to suppress peaceful and legitimate dissent, particularly among ethnic minorities in Tibet and in the northwestern frontiers of Xinjiang.

Activists overseas have accused Beijing of using the global anti-terrorism campaign to justify its effort to crush groups pressing for autonomy or independence.

"I do have concerns about how countries, throughout the world really, take measures to combat terrorism,'' she said. "It is necessary to take measures, but there must also be very clear boundaries."

Human rights activists overseas complain that U.N. cooperation with Beijing on human rights has not produced substantive changes.

Poor progress

Xiao Qiang, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China, says: "Since the launch of the technical cooperation program, there has been poor progress on eliminating political imprisonment, administrative detention or torture."

At the end of her first day, the U.N. commissioner conceded that ``I haven't had as much progress on individual cases as I have wished."

But she insists there is no other way but to engage patiently.

"I think it's all the more important to do it now, because with this coalition to combat terrorism, I think some governments are no longer raising issues as strongly as they should.

"So it's impossible to achieve overnight."


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