BEIJING, March 2 (Newsroom)--Freedom of religion, expression, and association have deteriorated in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson told reporters Thursday at the beginning of a three-day regional rights forum in Beijing. The comments come at a time when China is garnering support for entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao fired back at Robinson during a news briefing, insisting that "only Chinese people have the right to judge whether human rights conditions in China have turned better or worse."

The United States plans to formally criticize China at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights later this month in Geneva. Last week, the U.S. State Department issued an annual human rights report which declared that China's human rights record "deteriorated markedly" in 1999.

On Monday, however, the White House said that it plans to rush legislation to Congress that would speed up a vote on a controversial U.S.-China trade agreement paving the way for China's entrance into the WTO.

Legislators say they won't wait for the European Union and other nations to complete negotiations with Beijing over its WTO bid. The trade pact calls for China to open a wide range of markets in exchange for permanent normal trade relations--a status Beijing now is granted annually based on considerations that include human rights practices.

The State Department report said that China "continued to restrict freedom of religion and intensified controls on some unregistered churches. Particularly serious human rights abuses persisted in some minority areas, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where restrictions on religion and other fundamental freedoms intensified."

The report also noted that "unapproved religious groups--which in China include Protestant, Catholic, Falun Gong, Buddhist and Muslim groups--continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, repression, and persecution."

Many human rights groups want to see significant improvement in China's human rights record before it is allowed into the WTO. "It makes little sense to bring China into the WTO and expect it to abide by global trading rules when Beijing flaunts international rules of human rights with impunity," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch in testimony before the U.S. Congress in February.

Other groups believe that by allowing China into the WTO the country will become more exposed to democratic influences and eventually will be forced to conform its laws and practice to international standards. China is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees basic freedoms, including freedom of religion, but has yet to ratify it.

Robinson said on Thursday, however, that Beijing has made progress toward ratification.

Jendrzejczyk told the U.S. Congress that "a tightening of controls on basic freedoms began in late 1998, escalated throughout 1999, and has continued into the new year. The range of the crackdown suggests that a nationally coordinated campaign is under way to shut down all peaceful opposition in the name of maintaining 'social stability.'"

Rights groups noted this week that authorities beat to death a member of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and detained the parents of the Tibetan Buddhist Karmapa Lama, who has sought asylum in India.

The South China Morning Post reported Thursday that Beijing authorities have asked Chinese journalists covering next week's tightly-guarded parliament meeting to issue a letter of guarantee that they are not Falun Gong practitioners. Authorities are worried that Falun Gong practitioners have "infiltrated" all areas of society, including the media, the Hong Kong daily said.

New York-based Human Rights in China reported that police have been rounding up dissidents ahead of the meeting.

According to news reports, the U.S. trade deal also has been threatened recently by increasing criticism by lawmakers over China's threat to invade Taiwan.

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