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China Tries to Put Best Face on Human Rights 'Reforms' : Dissidents: In rare visit to forced labor camp, 5 U.S. reporters see--but can't talk to--most famous prisoner.


LINGYUAN, China — Hoping to impress their foreign guests with the benevolence of their institution, officials at the Lingyuan No. 2 Labor Reform Detachment began by showing a videotape that described the sprawling forced labor camp as a "happy land for the reforming of new men."

But, mid-video, just after a lingering close-up of a velvety red rose supposedly grown in the prison garden, Warden Xin Tingquan, who had been acting nervously, jumped to his feet.

Herding his American guests, five China-based news correspondents, to a tinted, one-way window overlooking the main prison courtyard, Xin blurted:

"Mr. Liu Gang will be walking by now."

And indeed, there he was, Lingyuan No. 2 Labor Reform Detachment's most famous political prisoner, Liu Gang, 32, wearing a quilted blue jacket, walking slowly and talking with a prison guard on the path just below the window.

Arrested in 1989 in the wake of the Tian An Men Square crackdown, Liu was an important student leader in the democracy movement before it was crushed by People's Liberation Army troops. His six-year sentence, and subsequent reports that he was tortured in prison by Chinese authorities, made him a focal point of international human rights complaints against the Chinese government.

By permitting the American reporters to visit the prison, a rare peek inside one of 684 "reform-through-labor" camps in the vast Chinese gulag, the Beijing government hoped to demonstrate a new openness and responsiveness to human rights concerns.

Friday's carefully choreographed prison visit was timed exactly one week before U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher's planned visit to China.

But the prison officials refused the reporters' repeated requests to interview Liu in person. At first, the officials said the interview was prohibited by prison rules. Later, they said the interview was not granted because "Liu Gang has a habit of not telling the truth."

Clearly, they were afraid of what the former physics graduate student might say to the reporters. But without the direct interview, it was impossible to ascertain the prisoner's state of health or evaluate his treatment in prison.

The unprecedented tour of the infamous prison camp came as police across the country were rounding up other dissidents.

Among them was China's leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who was detained for 24 hours before being released Saturday. The detention was apparently punishment for Wei's meeting last week in Beijing with U.S. State Department human rights official John Shattuck.

Wei's detention and the arrest or detention of at least seven other dissidents in recent days sparked a sharp negative reaction from President Clinton and cast a dark cloud over the upcoming visit by Christopher.

In an executive order signed by Clinton, the United States has threatened to withdraw low-tariff "most-favored-nation" trading status from China unless Beijing demonstrates "significant, overall progress" on human rights questions before June.

"You can be sure that human rights will be right at the top of my agenda when I get to Beijing," Christopher said Saturday in Honolulu, where he began his Asia tour.

Until the recent series of arrests and detentions, the Christopher visit was viewed by both sides as an opportunity to iron out remaining differences between the two countries. On his recent visit here, human rights envoy Shattuck said agreement was close at hand on several key human rights concerns.

If the Chinese authorities are sending mixed signals to the Americans about their willingness to cooperate on human rights, it may be because two arms of the Chinese government, each with its own political leaning, are pulling in opposite directions.

The recent crackdown on dissidents, for example, was conducted by the Public Security Bureau, the hard-line police agency in charge of maintaining public order. Although the timing this year is particularly sensitive because of the Christopher visit, the Public Security Bureau often conducts roundups of dissident political activists in advance of sessions of the National People's Congress, like the one scheduled to begin next week.

Meanwhile, a more conciliatory tone has been struck by the State Council, the highest organ of state administration, headed by Chinese Premier Li Peng.

Last week, the press office of the State Council showed a group of American reporters videotapes taken in jail of Liu and three other men--Chen Ziming, Wang Juntao and Ren Wanding--who head the political prisoner lists of most human rights groups. The videotapes showed the dissident leaders celebrating the Chinese New Year with their families in jail.

On Friday, here in a remote region of Liaoning province, 160 miles northeast of Beijing, the State Council granted reporters' requests to visit one of the most notorious prisons in the Chinese system.

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