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China boasts of record on rights

China, which insists it has no political prisoners, yesterday admitted 2,026 people were in jail for "counter-revolutionary" crimes. Zhang Xiufu, Vice-Minister of Justice, said: "In China, counter-revolutionary prisoners are not political prisoners, they are prisoners who have endangered national security ... or have conducted activities to overthrow the political power of China."

The distinction is largely academic for the families of those who have been locked away. Relatives of Wang Dan, the former student leader who last year was sentenced to 11 years for subversion, say he is suffering from stomach, throat and prostate problems. Mr Zhang insisted the prisoner was in good health, and "even joined a singing contest in prison".

There was little evidence yesterday, as China published its annual White Paper on its own human rights record, of the "more receptive" stance US vice-president Al Gore said he witnessed last week when raising the subject with China's leaders. Peking has been buoyed by France's decision not to co-sponsor a motion criticising China at the UN Human Rights Convention in Geneva. The White Paper maintained China's position that the right to food and shelter transcends other considerations. "The progress China made in its human rights undertakings in 1996 has once again proved China always places top priority on its people's right to subsistence and development," it said. There was no mention of dissidents.

Economic growth, legal reform and the "strike hard" crackdown on crime were cited as evidence of improved human rights. Last month, China scrapped the charge of counter-revolution in favour of endangering state security. On paper there have been many reforms. The problem is the gulf between theory and practice.

Yesterday, Mr Zhang was asked why Bao Tong, 63, released from prison last May, is still under house arrest. Mr Bao was the most senior political figure jailed after the Tiananmen Square massacre . "High-level departments think he is not suitable any more for ministerial-level housing and want to change his residence but have so far failed to do so," Mr Zhang said.