Chinese officials rebuffed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's suggestion that they use a possibly conciliatory speech by Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to restart cross-strait discussions, telling him in strong terms Monday that they are not impressed by Chen's words and are worried about his actions.
After a series of meetings with top Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao, Powell told reporters that the Chinese had agreed to reopen a dialogue with the United States on human rights that had been halted for seven months. He also indicated that Chinese officials planned to use their influence to prod North Korea to return to talks on ending its nuclear programs.
But Powell received a noncommittal answer when he inquired about the recent arrest of a New York Times researcher and he came away empty-handed on Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
In a National Day speech on Oct. 10, Chen proposed the resumption of long-suspended talks on the basis of a 1992 meeting in Hong Kong, at which Taiwanese and Chinese officials papered over differences by agreeing there is only one China but acknowledging that each side has a different understanding of what that means. Chen's gesture was regarded as a concession in Taiwan, which is in the midst of a campaign for parliamentary elections Dec. 11. Previously, Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party had rejected such ambiguity, insisting that Taiwan is a separate country.
"The United States thought there might be some elements [in the speech] the Chinese could work with in improving cross-straits dialogue," Powell told reporters. "The response I received from Chinese leadership today was that they are still concerned about President Chen Shui-bian's actions and they did not find his statement to be that forthcoming."
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of diplomatic talks, put it more bluntly, saying Chinese officials "were uniformly downbeat in their assessment of Chen's speech."
China had rejected Chen's speech, which called for dialogue and other "concrete actions," shortly after he delivered it.
Some experts have described Chen's speech as a ruse in which he used clever language to suggest more flexibility.
The State Department official said Powell chose to visit Beijing at this time because "the president and vice president, because of their campaign, were unlikely to be able to have the kind of meetings that in other years they have had with the Chinese."
During Powell's tour of East Asia, he has pressed for a resumption of six-nation talks on North Korea. He told reporters that China shared the Bush administration's interest in quickly restarting the talks, which the North Korean government has balked at attending.
The State Department official said he believed China, North Korea's main benefactor, "will use a combination of influences" to bring North Korea back to the table.
On human rights, State Department officials said dialogue has been stalled for months, largely because of Chinese anger over a resolution the Bush administration sponsored in April at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva condemning China's human rights practices. As a result, U.S. officials have not been able to ask questions about particular prisoners, and U.S. groups promoting religious freedom have faced difficulties getting trips to China approved.
China's decision to restart human rights discussions will now allow those diplomatic exchanges to begin within three or four weeks, the official said.
In a meeting with Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, Powell expressed concern about the detention in September of a New York Times researcher, Zhao Yan, on suspicion of divulging state secrets. Zhao was formally arrested last week, but officials have not specified the allegations against him. Speculation has centered on Zhao's role in a Sept. 7 article by the Times disclosing plans by former president Jiang Zemin to leave his post as head of China's military, resolving a power struggle among China's leaders.
Powell said he asked Li to look into the matter and suggested that Zhao be released quickly. But the foreign minister noted that Zhao is a Chinese citizen who is being handled "in accordance with Chinese law," Powell said.