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Sunday, September 6, 1998 Published at 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

West believes China is changing

[ image:  ]
Duncan Hewitt reports from Beijing

The visit of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to China is seen as a breakthrough by UN officials.

Mrs Robinson will meet President Jiang Zemin and other senior officials, as well as representatives of the judiciary and non-governmental groups.

She will also travel to Tibet, the focus of much criticism of China's record on religious and political freedom.

The visit is being seen as part of efforts by China to stress a new willingness for dialogue on human rights.

A number of dissidents have sought to test this, requesting meetings with Mrs Robinson and asking her to call on China to stop sending people to labour camps without trial.

China has traditionally deflected criticism of its human rights record by arguing that the most important human right is providing food for its 1.2 billion people.

But the invitation to Mary Robinson has been hailed by the US and European countries as another step by China towards accepting international standards.

Annual criticism dropped

It was a factor in their recent decision to drop an annual motion at the UN criticising China's record.

China's pledge to sign the UN's international covenant on civil and political rights this year will be discussed during Mrs Robinson's visit.

Critics have said it is simply an attempt to improve China's image.

But UN officials say they believe China is making genuine steps towards implementing the social and political freedoms enshrined in the covenant.

Some dissidents say by signing up, Beijing will find it harder to reject criticism of its human rights record as interference in its internal affairs.

Mrs Robinson will also meet senior officials at the justice ministry and supreme court.

There are hopes of further co-operation on the training of judges and legal aid as China increasingly emphasises the rule of law.

But more than 100 dissidents have petitioned Mrs Robinson to demand China abolishes labour re-education, a form of sentence which requires no trial and has been used against several activists this year.

She will also face sensitive issues during her visit to Tibet and in handling requests by a number of dissidents for meetings with her.

Mrs Robinson has said people should not have unrealistic expectations, and stressed her visit was part of a gradual process.

It comes just days after human rights groups reported that an activist who had sought to stand for election as a factory representative was sentenced to three years in jail.

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