HONG KONG — Last month, China issued a white paper that purported to show progress it had made on the human-rights front in 2004. It was immediately dismissed by human-rights organizations as little more than propaganda. While this may well be true, there are signs of significant progress on human rights.

One significant event is the scheduled visit to China later this month by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven. This visit had been discussed for many years, prompted by persistent reports of torture in Chinese prisons. China had issued an invitation to van Boven’s predecessor, Sir Nigel Rodley, in 1999, but that visit never took place because Beijing at the time would not accept the special rapporteur’s terms, including the right to make unannounced visits to places of detention and Chinese guarantees that there would be no reprisals against anybody who spoke to him. China has now accepted the terms.

Moreover, China has agreed to let the International Committee of the Red Cross open an office in Beijing next month, and to allow the special rapporteur on religious intolerance to visit the country.

There have been other recent developments relating to religious freedom. New regulations have been issued that allow the operation of nonregistered family churches in homes. On the face, this looks like a big step toward the legalization of underground churches. China has issued a statement asserting that religious education of minors is legal.

China has also issued an invitation to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to visit. The commission was previously invited in late 2002, but that visit, originally scheduled for August 2003, was postponed when the commission refused to accept conditions imposed by the Chinese government. Specifically, for unexplained reasons, the commission was told that it could not include Hong Kong on its itinerary.

Another significant recent development is China’s newfound willingness to release the names of political prisoners not previously known to the outside world. In the past, the practice had been for Western governments to ask China for information about specific individuals whose names were provided by Chinese dissident groups or had appeared in the Chinese press.

According to John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human-rights organization, Dui Hua in January received official information from China on 56 individuals serving sentences for political offenses, most of whose names were not known to the outside world.

The information was disclosed in the context of confirming another development: political prisoners, like other criminals, can benefit from clemency. Kamm, during visits to Beijing last November and in January, had asked Chinese officials to verify that political prisoners do, indeed, benefit from parole and other acts of clemency. In response, they sent him the list of 56 cases where political prisoners had been given parole or sentence reduction.

According to Dui Hua, most of the information concerns prisoners whose names are unknown outside of China. Of the 56 cases, 20 were from Fujian province and 11 from Tibet, with a few from other provinces, including Qinghai.

Kamm had visited Fujian in 2003 and was told that there were “about 20” inmates in the province serving sentences related to state security. If that figure was accurate, it appears that a majority of them were paroled or received sentence reductions in 2004.

Most of the prisoners were in prison on charges of spying for Taiwan, including two men, Zhang Bubing and Zheng Guojin, who had sold classified documents to Taiwan intelligence agencies. There was also the case of Sun Xiongying — the last prisoner in Fujian still serving a sentence for counterrevolutionary crimes committed in June 1989 — who was released two years early.

It was the combination of all these developments, referred to by the U.S. State Department as “important steps” and “structural changes concerning human rights,” that persuaded Washington not to introduce a resolution critical of China in the Human Rights Commission this year. It wasn’t just the release of Rebiya Kadeer, although that in itself was an important event.

This does not mean that all is well. Only a few days ago, a journalist, Shi Tao, was given a 10-year prison sentence in Changsha, Hunan province, for “leaking state secrets abroad.” It turned out that the “state secret” involved was a memo sent to newspapers telling them to ignore the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.