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Western Press Review: Human Rights Issues Call For Comment

By Joel Blocker and Alexandre d'Aragon

Prague, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The recent release of a prominent Chinese dissident, Wang Dan, by Beijing's Communist Government has evoked considerable comment in the Western press. A hero of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Wang was serving an 11-year jail sentence until he was in effect exiled to the U.S. on Saturday (Apr. 18). Press commentators are also concerned with developments elsewhere in Asia.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: The release of Wan Dan looks like yet another cynical political maneuver

Three major U.S. newspapers assess the significance of China's allowing Wang Dan to settle in the U.S. In an editorial today, the Wall Street Journal Europe says that "the world is rightly rejoicing over the freedom of Wang Dan, the latest Chinese dissident to have been released from jail and sent into exile." But it warns "that Mr. Wang's release...should (not) be interpreted as a sign that the Chinese Government is becoming more open-minded about dissent. Over the past two months," the paper notes, "there have been reports of three other democracy activists being sent to labor camps, including yesterday's (Tuesday) news about the 're-education through labor' sentence of math teacher Wang Tinjin."

The paper goes on to says: "Seen through the prism of such on-going arrests and imprisonment, the release of Wan Dan looks like yet another cynical political maneuver. It appears to have everything to do with making the visit to China by U.S. President Bill Clinton in June more comfortable, and little or nothing to do with respecting human rights. By packing Wang Dan off to the U.S. hours after his release, just as they did last Fall with another dissident, Wei Jingsheng, China's leaders have proven only that they know how to play the public relations game." And the editorial concludes: "For every famous person released (by Beijing), many hundreds of other brave but more obscure men and women remain in jail or are at risk of being arrested."

LOS ANGLES TIMES: China has legitimized the issue of human rights in its relationship with the United States

The Los Angeles Times, in an editorial yesterday, also said that Wang's release was largely "a cosmetic gesture timed to smooth the way for President Clinton's visit to China in June." The paper wrote: "Freedom for Wang --technically medical parole for the asthmatic 28-year-old-- is welcome, though its significance should not be overvalued.... It does not herald a basic change in Beijing's intolerance of those who challenge its authoritarian rules and practices. But," the paper suggests, "it may signal something else." The editorial explains: "A few weeks, ago the Clinton Administration announced it would drop American support for a resolution before the UN Human Rights Commission (based in Geneva) condemning China's record on human rights. In return, Washington asked China to sign a UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to set free its imprisoned dissidents, of whom Wang was among the best known. China agreed to do both."

The paper concludes: " What China has done through its release of Wang, and its earlier release of Wei Jingsheng, is in effect legitimize the issue of human rights as important in its relationship with the United States, and that is good. (But) it is not begrudging Wang his freedom to note the political dis-equilibrium in the bargain that was struck to obtain it. The human rights resolution that Washington no longer supports grew out of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when a frightened Communist leadership crushed demonstrators peacefully seeking a modicum of change. China's leaders have become marginally more liberal since then, though hardly more welcoming toward dissent."

WASHINGTON POST: There is a danger of losing sight of the thousands of prisoners of conscience

Yesterday, too, the Washington Post expressed similar thoughts in its editorial. The paper said: "It was front-page news this week that China had sent well-known dissident Wang Dan into American exile, just as it was last November when democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng was taken from prison and put on a jet to Detroit. But a steady flow of arrests between these two well-publicized releases didn't make the front pages around the country or even a mention in most newspapers." The Washington Post also spoke of "a delicate unspoken deal (on Wang) between the Clinton and Jiang Zemin administrations," saying: "Now the way is clear for Mr. Clinton's visit to China in June --the first by a U.S. president since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989." The editorial continued: "There can be only joy that (Wang) is free, albeit in forced exile. Yet there is a danger, as China bargains with its dissidents one by one, of losing sight of the thousands of prisoners of conscience who remain in jail or labor camps --and those who are added to the prison population week after week....That's why the regime still is doing what it can to make sure Wang Dang's message won't be heard in his homeland."

INDEPENDENT: What Beijing reacts to is pressure

Across the Atlantic, in Britain's Independent daily today, analyst Jonathan Mirsky says that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has "made himself taking credit (in a recent television appearance) for the release of China's two most famous dissidents, Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan." Mirsky writes: "This is symptomatic of how Britain deals with Beijing on human rights. (The Foreign Office's Human Rights report, issued yesterday) highlights its 'new dialogue on human rights with China,' emphasizing that dialogue, not confrontation, gets results." Mirsky strongly disagrees with this approach, writing: "What Beijing reacts to is pressure. After Tiananmen, international sanctions resulted in the release of hundreds of prisoners." He goes on to note that both Robin Cook and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have adopted just such an approach in their current dealings with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He recalls that Secretary Albright recently uttered words about Milosevic that "neither Britain nor the U.S. are willing to apply to China: 'Moral condemnation and symbolic gestures of concern will get us nowhere.' "

WASHINGTON POST: The United States won a valuable Cold War victory in Afghanistan

Elsewhere in Asia, the Washington Post finds "a new chance (for peace) for Afghanistan" in the recent visit to the war-torn country by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson. The paper wrote in an editorial yesterday: "Few disputes are as bitter and wasting as the one in Afghanistan. So deep is the conflict among its Islamic factions that many people elsewhere have abandoned the hope that it can be resolved. It was a surprise when Ambassador Richardson arrived there the other day to commit the Administration to an Afghan peace initiative. The keener the surprise when Mr. Richardson extracted a few mutual goodwill gestures, including a suspension of the usual spring military offensives until face-to-face talks open in a few days." The editorial continued: "Everything is hard in Afghanistan. The country lives with a measure of pain-defying comprehension. Five UN envoys have failed there. But this initiative comes at a moment when the region seems ready to turn to modernization before all hope of catch-up is lost." And it concluded: "A loose diplomatic grouping of 'six plus two' stands (somewhere) behind the initiative; the six are the neighbors, including Iran, and the two are the U.S. and Russia. The UN has a representative. Japan is everyone's favorite to lead rehabilitation. The United States won a valuable Cold War victory in Afghanistan and has good reason to keep going now."

GLOBE: Pol Pot followed the path of the great society-transforming killers

Finally, Robert Fulford of Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper today writes a political obituary for Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose death was reported earlier this week. Fulford calls Pol Pot the "poster boy for the madness of revolutionary chic." He writes: "Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mao --these were the great society-transforming killers whose path Pol Pot followed. Like him, they all...were full of passionate justification, angry self-righteousness. Always they had...euphemisms: Dictatorships torture language while torturing people. Class war. Final Solution. Cultural revolution. Ethnic cleansing." Fulford also seeks to answer the question posed by many other commentators: Why did Pol Pot oversee the killing of more than a million Cambodians, about one in seven of all his countrymen? Fulford explains ironically: "The truth is, Pol Pot did it for the good of humanity, He did it for the future. He did it because it was his revolutionary duty. He did it because he learned in youth that killing was a legitimate political technique. And of course he did because killing, once started, is not a habit easily broken."