By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS, March 6 --With the Clinton administration determined to have China"s record on human rights condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the Chinese are relying on intensive diplomacy and procedural ploys to escape criticism. It is a system that has worked well in the past for would-be targets of condemnation.
"If the U.S. administration decides to sponsor the anti-China resolution, we believe, like in previous situations, the majority of the commission will be on China"s side,"Shen Guofang, China"s deputy representative at the United Nations said in an interview. "They don"t want to see a confrontation in the commission." Mr. Shen predicted that the United States would not get the solid support of Europe. Some Western diplomats here say the Chinese have been able to play American and European commercial interests against one other with considerable success. China has had "dialogues" with European countries to explain its record, Mr. Shen said, adding that there should be more talks with the United States, whose main irritant may really be China"s socialist system, he said. "Of course we have some room for improvement," Mr. Shen said. But since the 1970"s, when China began to open its economy and begin other reforms, there have been big changes, he said. "China now has the best human rights situation in its history." Diplomats and human rights officials, who point to steps China has begun taking to cooperate with rights monitors, say that public criticism is anathema to Beijing. When the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, said in China that the rights situation had declined, officials warned her not to raise the issue of Falun Gong, the banned religious sect, or other problems that she has highlighted.
For a powerful and determined country like China -- or Russia, when Chechnya is at issue, or at times the United States -- the United Nations system can offer many ways to avoid public scrutiny and embarrassing moments, from the Security Council all the way down to subcommittees meeting in basement rooms.
Official functions are not the only focus. Film screenings, art exhibitions, journalists" briefings and even ecumenical religious services can be blocked by pressure from various nations. China is considered one of the most active in denying a platform for critics, including the Dalai Lama, who is effectively barred from United Nations events.
Ahead of the annual commission meeting in Geneva, which this year runs from March 20 until the end of April, China has been running a two-track defense, diplomats and human rights advocates say.
In Geneva, the Chinese are expected to try to keep an American-sponsored resolution on its human rights record off the full commission"s agenda by using a pre-emptive parliamentary technique, a "no action" motion. With support of other Asian, African and some Latin American countries, China has managed to have the resolution struck in advance nearly every year; once it was discussed and defeated.
India, whose rights record the State Department last week characterized as rife with "significant abuses," backs China, as does Iran.
On a second track, China works to bar organizations of Chinese or Tibetan exiles from getting a hearing there. This year it has already succeeded in excluding Human Rights in China, a New York-based group led by prominent exiles.
Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist now teaching in the United States, is co-chairman with Robert Bernstein of Human Rights in China; Xiao Qiang, another scientist in exile who has worked closely with Chinese grass-rootsgroups, particularly the mothers of victims at Tiananmen Square in 1989, is executive director.
Human rights groups and United Nations officials say that in the past the commission meeting in Geneva had been unique within the United Nations system in its openness to nongovernmental organizations. But the say that may be changing.
Joanna Weschler, Human Rights Watch"s representative at the United Nations, said that tolerance for nongovernmental organizations, known as NGO"s, has generally been shrinking under the current composition of a 19-member committee that is able to grant or deny "consultative status" to independent groups.
Margaret Huang, Asia program director for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in Washington, said the committee was "not very NGO-friendly now." Some Western diplomats agree.
The Kennedy center made Mr. Xiao a member of its delegation last year, and was criticized for giving back-door access. "This year I feel for the first time I may not be able to speak," Mr. Xiao said. "If we"re not going and don"t speak, Chinese issues are gone from the commission."