Two prominent Chinese dissidents whose cases had become a sore point in Sino-U.S. relations have been granted permission to leave China, a visiting State Department official announced here Friday.
Arnold L. Kanter, undersecretary for political affairs, said at a news conference that Chinese officials told him exit permits have been granted to Han Dongfang and Liu Qing. Both are former political prisoners.
Han, 28, a worker in a factory under the Ministry of Railways, was jailed for 22 months for organizing an unofficial labor union that supported the 1989 Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests. He was released when it appeared that he might die of tuberculosis contracted in prison.
Liu, 45, was first arrested in 1979 and served a 10-year prison term for distributing a transcript of the secret trial of another democracy activist, Wei Jingsheng. Wei, who remains in jail, is one of China's most famous political prisoners. Liu was released in late 1989 after finishing his sentence, but has also spent some time in custody since then.
Chinese officials indicated that exit permits "had (also) been granted for several others and that more would follow," Kanter said.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III came away from a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Beijing last November believing that the Chinese had promised to grant exit visas to Chinese against whom no criminal charges were pending, including Han and several other prominent dissidents.
But Han and others--including Hou Xiaotian, the wife of Wang Juntao, who is serving a 13-year sentence for allegedly helping plan the 1989 protests--were subsequently unable to get permission to travel abroad. The State Department saw this as a broken promise and complained to the Chinese.
At a March press conference, Qian declared that China had merely promised to let such people apply to leave--not necessarily to grant approval. "Naturally, in their application, they have to go through certain formalities and procedures," Qian said. "It is impossible that we can dispense with all those formalities."
At Friday's news conference, Kanter said that during his visit, Chinese officials reiterated the promise initially made to Baker in November.
"My interlocutors consistently reaffirmed to me that the understanding reached last November between Secretary Baker and Foreign Minister Qian, that the Chinese would grant passports and exit documentation to Chinese wishing to depart, is valid," Kanter said. "That is, a Chinese citizen who has no legal obligations and completes the necessary formalities--that individual will be permitted to leave."
In the repressive and bureaucratic Chinese system, however, it is easy for authorities to place innumerable roadblocks in the way of getting passports or exit permits.
Kanter said that in response to requests from the U.S. side, Chinese officials had provided information on the status of some political prisoners, but he declined to release any details.
Kanter also would not say whether he viewed the actions taken by the Chinese as a sign of any progress on human rights.
Human rights "is an issue which remains a very important one on our agenda, and we'll continue to pursue it very actively with the Chinese," Kanter said. "It will be very difficult to improve our overall relations with the Chinese government unless and until we can make progress on this issue."