China should release those of its citizens imprisoned since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown if it wants the EU to end its arms ban, a senior EU delegation told their hosts in Beijing on Wednesday.
The request for an amnesty, one of four areas in which the EU is seeking better human rights, raises the bar for lifting the 16-year embargo, making a change unlikely this year.
The linkage is embarrassing for Beijing's communist leaders, who see removal of the "discriminatory" ban as a central goal of its improved relations with Europe. It is also a setback for the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, who have pushed hard for a June date for the 25-state union to lift its ban, imposed after the 1989 bloody suppression of demonstrations for democracy.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU commissioner for external relations, maintained that the June target was still reachable if both sides made concessions, but put the onus on China.
"Lifting the embargo will of course be easier if the climate is right," she said. "Above all, we need to help persuade our public opinion China is making concrete steps to improve human rights."
According to a European diplomat taking part in the negotiations, the EU has urged Beijing to ratify the UN convention on political and civil rights; release Tiananmen prisoners; reform China's re-education-through-labor penal system; and ease media censorship.
Although not described as preconditions, the very public linkage creates a stumbling block. Accepting the four proposals would cost Beijing a huge loss of face. The foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing (李肇星), said it was "unreasonable and unhelpful" to link the embargo to China's rights record.
"Any attempt to impose one's own values on another country is an embodiment of disrespect to the human rights of the other country," he told a joint news conference with his EU counterpart.
Chinese officials argue that the ban is a Cold War relic, and fails to take account of dramatic changes since 1989.
But Beijing has made no effort to address what caused the ban -- the breaking up of the demonstrations on June 4, 1989 by troops and tanks of the People's Liberation Army who killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters. There has been no inquiry or punishment of those responsible.
Although human rights was the reason for the ban in the first place, the question is only belatedly becoming part of the discussion about lifting it.
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