China expels leading rights activist

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China's swift sentencing and expulsion of the human rights campaigner Harry Wu should clear the way for Hillary Clinton to attend next month's UN conference on women in Peking. But the incident may have only a limited impact on the host of other problems bedevilling relations between the two countries.

Mr Wu was expelled last night, just hours after being sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court in Hubei province in central China. He was reported to be on a flight to San Francisco. The official Xinhua news agency said he had signed a confession and had been convicted of spying after posing as a government worker and "illegally obtaining, buying and providing state secrets". Mr Wu was detained as he tried to enter China from Kazakhstan.

State Department officials, caught by surprise by the Chinese announcement, said they could not immediately confirm that Mr Wu had been expelled or where he was. But at a briefing at the very moment the news came through, the UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, the leader of the US delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women, denied any prior deal with China whereby Mrs Clinton would travel to Peking as honorary chairman of the US delegation in return for a swift resolution of the Wu affair.

From Wyoming, where the Clintons are on holiday, a White House spokeswoman noted that the First Lady's trip depended on other factors as well. But Mrs Clinton has never hidden her desire to attend a gathering focused on the women's issues long close to her heart. And despite advice from many politicians that she should drop the trip, advance teams in China itself have continued to make preparations. The conference begins on 5 September.

However, diplomats and China experts point out the release of one nettlesome human rights campaigner will not on its own mend relations which Xinhua said this week were at their lowest point since formal diplomatic ties between Washington and Peking resumed in 1979. The main advantage for China in letting Mr Wu go is that it prevents the loss of face Peking would have suffered had the women's conference been overshadowed by a squabble with the US, and the snub of a cancellation by Mrs Clinton.

The release will allow the discussions of Peter Tarnoff, the US Under- Secretary of State, with Chinese leaders in Peking this weekend to concentrate on the deeper problems in Sino-American ties. The outcome, much more than the expulsion of Mr Wu, will determine whether a summit between Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin can be held this year.

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