The Wheels of Justice

Article excerpt

When the United States sponsors a resolution condemning China at the meeting of the United Nations commission on human rights that opens in Geneva this week, not much is going to happen. Washington has never been able to muster enough support to pass such motions, and this year the chances are even slimmer. The 53-member commission now includes such prickly countries as Libya, Vietnam, Cuba, Syria and Saudi Arabia. "Five of the members have the worst possible scars on their human- rights records," says John Kamm, an activist who works to free Chinese political prisoners. "And China isn't even one of them."

In fact, while the world's attention is focused on Geneva, more might be happening behind the scenes in Beijing. For years reformers have gingerly explored ways to relax some of China's worst human-rights abuses from within the communist system. Now for the first time, say Western diplomats and advisers to Chinese leaders, authorities are mapping out substantive changes to the more unpalatable aspects of China's justice system, including its infamous "re-education through labor" camps.

More than 230,000 citizens--including pro-democracy activists, Falun Gong practitioners and Tibetan monks--currently languish in the Chinese gulag. Their cases are decided by small, secretive panels that include uniformed police and agents of the feared Ministry of State Security. Prisoners can be sentenced for up to three years without trial. One Falun Gong devotee, sculptor Zhang Kunlun, was detained last July and dumped in one of these camps. Later freed because he holds a Canadian passport, Zhang says police beat him with cattle prods and shouted "[President] Jiang Zemin says Falun Gong is an evil cult!" Similar stories prompted U.N. human-rights commissioner Mary Robinson to call for an end to the controversial system during a recent visit to Beijing.

Chinese leaders began to re-examine the system long before Robinson's trip, in large part because they can see the writing on the wall. Most officials now accept that change is inevitable once China accedes to the World Trade Organization and ratifies the U.N. covenant on civil and political rights: if the country is held to the standards enshrined in both, and that's a big if, "we'll have to play by the rules of the global game," says Xing Bensi, a senior member of the Chinese Parliament and deputy of its law committee. Says a Western diplomat, "There is growing recognition here that as China joins the global community it will have to have a predictable system of law."

At the same time, even mild concessions on human rights cost less internally and carry much greater weight abroad than other possible compromises--bending on the issue of arms sales to Taiwan, for instance. …