- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

BEIJING Angry human rights groups are accusing Australian Health Minister Michael Wooldridge of handing the Chinese government a propaganda coup when he recently lauded its efforts to improve social conditions in Tibet.

The minister's comments after a three-day tour of Australian aid projects in the Himalayan region must have been "very gratifying" for a Chinese government that is "struggling to find some international acceptance for [its] human rights record," complained Alex Butler, vice president of the Australia Tibet Council.

Mr. Wooldridge, the most senior Australian official to visit Tibet in 13 years, stood his ground at a weekend news conference, where he said he had raised human rights issues with the Chinese government but remained impressed by its commitment to helping the poorest members of society.

Describing the Chinese as "gracious hosts" on an "exceedingly worthwhile trip," Mr. Wooldridge said he had no sense that his visit had been exploited for positive publicity.

"Australia is running serious aid projects in Tibet that are improving the lot of the poorest Tibetans," he said Saturday in Beijing. "Seeing [these projects] in action is something Australians should be proud of. It is very practical aid, and very successful aid."

Australia is spending about $3.5 million on two projects to relieve iodine deficiency and provide clean water. An iodine salt factory has been built in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and another is planned in a more remote area of Tibet.

Mr. Wooldridge said he had raised human rights issues during "lengthy and detailed discussions" with senior officials in Lhasa, including the vice chairman of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. He said he had brought up "concerns that are frequently raised in Australia," but declined to give details.

Mr. Butler dismissed the minister's explanation as "the same old stuff" conducted behind closed doors.

"The public is expected to take their word for it that progress is being made, though on the ground in Tibet there is no sign of progress at all," he said.

"We have had four years of hearing this identical statement over and over again. Why should the public take this seriously? We never have any real disclosure or accountability by either side."

Mr. Wooldridge argued that human rights "also involve a kid not contracting HIV from its mother, or being mentally retarded from iodine deficiency, or dying from gastroenteritis because of poor water. I thought China was … trying to really do something for the poorest of its people."

The minister said Australia's ambassador had received a positive response to a proposed project aimed at strengthening the legal framework in Tibet. "If a project like that goes ahead, then it is something that would have a meaningful effect on human rights."

The Chinese government has long boasted of the progress it has brought to a backward region annexed by the People's Liberation Army in 1950. Chinese officials were reported to have told Mr. Wooldridge that before 1950 there were only two hospitals in Tibet and that the few doctors there served only the ruling class.

Today, officials say, Tibet boasts more than 1,200 hospitals and clinics staffed by more than 10,300 medical professionals. Life expectancy has risen to 65 years, from just 36 before 1950, according to government figures.

However a new study by American and Tibetan doctors published this month found that more than half the children in Tibet suffer from stunted growth.

"Our data show that Tibetan children are not 'small but healthy,' " said the researchers in The New England Journal of Medicine. "They have clinical signs of malnutrition as well as high morbidity and mortality."

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