US hails restart of rights dialogue: Peking and Washington resume talks but Americans say renewal of 'most favoured' trading status depends on progress

THE most senior American human rights official yesterday said he was hopeful he had begun 'an extensive bilateral human rights discussion' with China after this week's resumption by the two countries of a formal human rights dialogue after a hiatus of two years.

John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, speaking after meetings in Peking, said the resumption of a dialogue was an 'important development in our estimation'. However, he repeated that next year's extension of China's most-favoured nation (MFN) trading status would depend on significant progress on issues including prison labour, release of political prisoners, developments in Tibet and the use of forced abortion in family planning.

The other international negotiations in Peking yesterday, between Britain and China over electoral reform in Hong Kong, saw the 13th round break up amid growing acrimony. The British ambassador and team leader, Sir Robin McLaren, said: 'I won't say we have made no progress but I can't say I am satisfied with the progress that we've made.' In Hong Kong the Governor, Chris Patten, poured scorn on the Chinese team leader for having said on Monday it would be 'no big deal' if talks broke up without agreement.

'I do think that all of us in Hong Kong will be profoundly disappointed by the surprising remark by the Vice-Foreign Minister, Jiang Enzhu in Peking (on Monday) that it would be - and I quote his words - 'no big deal' if we did not reach agreement in the talks. I think it would be a big deal . . . I think everybody in Hong Kong thinks it would be a big deal.' Mr Jiang repeated China's threat to scrap any system left in place in 1997, when sovereignty reverted, and hold new polls.

In Peking, Mr Shattuck made no mention of US interest in developments in Hong Kong and it is not included in the list of issues relevant to MFN renewal. He and his team will, for the first time, travel to Tibet to continue discussions.

(Photograph omitted)