Washington, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The White House has welcomed China's decision to sign an international human rights agreement, calling it a "positive and constructive step" that will set up a mechanism to monitor Beijing's treatment of its citizens.
Spokesman Michael McCurry told reporters Thursday the move represents a formal Chinese commitment to the universality of human rights.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen announced that Beijing is preparing to sign the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The document protects freedom of expression, religion and equality before the law. He did not say when the signing would take place.
"There is a formal process under the covenant by which countries measure and report internationally their efforts to address human rights practices, and of course that will develop a strong multilateral mechanism for an examination of China's human rights record," McCurry said.
The White House spokesman said President Bill Clinton is seriously considering moving up his planned trip to China from November to late June. But McCurry said he is not in a position to announce a date for the visit.
Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin met in Washington last October. Clinton has pressed the Chinese leader to improve his country's human rights records.
Critics say China is engaged in such practices as using forced prison labor, and note its one-party communist system does not tolerate open political dissent.
The human rights group Amnesty International, while welcoming the announcement, warned that fundamental conditions in China have not changed.
Correspondents say Chinese officials are eager to host the first visit of an American president to China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of civilians in 1989.
McCurry said U.S.-Chinese relations are pivotal for both countries.
He said the two nations have been cooperating on various issues such as trying to bring peace to the Korean peninsula and arms nonproliferation.
"We think building on that record of support and continuing to move forward is important," McCurry said.
"And I think the president wants to see that kind of momentum in the overall status of the relationship continue," he added.