CHINA'S FORGOTTEN PRISONERS
by Patrick E.Tyler
SUMMARY: Since the decision of Bill Clinton to separate China's trade status from the respect of human rights, U.S. diplomacy seems to be paying less attention to the sort of Chinese prisoners. (International Herald Tribune, February 22, 1995).
Many people who were at Tiananmen Square during the student-led democracy protests of May 3rd June 1989 remember Yang Lianzi, a troubadour who wore a headband inscribed "Wild Man of China" and who mocked Chinese leaders with his poetry and songs about democracy.
But no one is quite sure what became of him after the military crackdown that smashed the demonstrations.
One Chinese court document that reached Western human rights organizations said that he was sentenced to prison for 15 years for using "the plucking of his guitar and the reciting of poems to spread counterrevolutionary thoughts." But, more recently, the Chinese authorities have said that he "never served a sentence in prison."
The confusion left Mr. Yang classified as an "obscure prisoner" on lists that human rights organizations keep of those who have disappeared into prisons and labor camps.
China's Ministry of Justice released information last month on the health and whereabouts of about 50 of those prisoners after a yearlong effort by John T. Kamm, a Hong Kong business consultant and human rights advocate. Mr. Yang was not among them.
"This is the most detailed response to a prisoner list I have ever seen," Mr. Kamm said.
But that information was the exception rather than the rule, at least in Washington's view of China's human rights performance. A State Department report on human rights around the world, made public three weeks ago, concluded that conditions are getting worse, not better. The report cited "arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention, torture and mistreatment of prisoners."
Mr. Kamm's information included the first news of two men who were sentenced in 1984, Zhang Chengjian and Zhao Fenping. Both were accused of "counterrevolutionary crimes" that included in the case of Mr. Zhao putting up posters in defense of Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous political prisoner.
Since 1989, American administrations have sought to account for China's political prisoners by tracking them, comparing notes with rights groups and assembling lists to present to Chinese authorities.
Although human rights progress was once pivotal in American relations with China, since President Bill Clinton separated China's trade status from its human rights performance, prisoner accounting has been drawing less attention from diplomats.
In 1991 and again in 1993, the United States handed over to the Chinese lists of more than 1,000 political prisoners assembled with the assistance of groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
But Mr. Kamm said he was told by a senior American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that "we're getting out of the prisoner-list business" after the decision last May to separate trade from human rights.
On a visit to Beijing last month, the State Department's top human rights official, John Shattuck, brought a relatively short list of prisoners about whom the administration is appealing for information or release on medical grounds. Chief among them are Mr. Wei, Ren Wanding and Bao Tong, who was a senior official under the former party chairman, Zhao Ziyang.
An American official said that the administration was debating whether the United States should stop submitting the lists, but that abandoning efforts to account for dissidents in detention "is not the policy at the highest levels of the State Department."