In Human Rights Talks, U.S. Raises Concerns About China’s Crackdown

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After two days of talks in Beijing on human rights, a U.S. representative expressed concern about the recent crackdown in China and the lack of information about several activists being held incommunicado by police. “In recent months we’ve seen a serious backsliding on human rights and a discussion of these negative trends dominated the human rights dialogue,” assistant U.S. Secretary of State Michael Posner told a press conference Thursday. Posner listed several detained activists by name, including the contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, who has been held incommunicado since he was stopped at the Beijing airport on April 3.  “There is great concern about the notion that someone who is a peaceful critic of the government seems to be endangered in terms of their ability to speak out,” Posner said. He added that when U.S. officials asked about Ai’s fate, they “certainly did not get an answer that satisfies.”

The latest round of regular talks between the U.S. and China on human rights comes amid one of the most intense periods of repression in China since the human rights dialogue was started in 1990, one year after the Chinese military crushed anti-government demonstrations. In recent months as many as 200 activists have been interrogated, detained or even disappeared into police custody. The crackdown was touched off by online calls for a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution.” While the calls for a Chinese uprising went unheeded by the public, the government has rounded up several prominent civil society activists and critics. The most famous of the disappeared, outspoken artist Ai, is under investigation for suspected “economic crimes,” most likely tax evasion. Posner also said they U.S was worried about several lawyers who have disappeared including Teng Biao, who was detained in February, and Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing for a year. He also mentioned the cases of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who is under house arrest in Shandong province with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since her husband Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall.When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington in January he told a joint press conference with President Barack Obama that “a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.” But while that was seen as a major concession, it in fact represents China’s longstanding position on the issue. And when Chinese leaders talk about human rights, their definition is often different than how the term is understood in democracies. Generally the Chinese government emphasizes economic progress such as lifting people out of poverty over political rights such as free speech.

The ability of the U.S. to influence China on human rights, which was never particularly great, is at an all-time low, leading to questions about the value of the dialogue. Long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo and other U.S. installations, have harmed American credibility. Early in the Obama administration Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. would not allow human rights concerns to hamper cooperation with China on issues like economic recovery and climate change, publicly lowering American expectations for China. And slow economic recovery in the U.S. has furthered eroded leverage over China, which has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. The lead story of Wednesday’s Global Times, a Communist Party-owned tabloid, pointedly raised the two countries’ economic prospects, asking “Can China Overtake the U.S. in Five Years?” At a regularly scheduled press conference on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China wanted the talks to be conducted on “a basis of mutual respect,” and added, “We oppose any country intervening in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights issues.”

Even before the talks concluded, the expectations of results were low. “If the question is whether it improves the human rights situation on the ground or the fate of political prisoners or rights defender, then the answer is no, these talk have absolutely no impact,” says Nicholas Bequelin senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The problem doesn’t lie with these meetings, it lies with the fact that there is no real political will to back up these dialogues with diplomatic pressure.” But Posner brushed off criticism of the Sino-U.S. human rights dialogue, saying that activists have told him that it is important to them that American officials raise specific cases both in public and in closed-door meetings with governments. “We need to and will continue to raise these issues in a range of forums,” he said. “It will not just be me raising these issues. The most senior officials in the United States are deeply concerned about the deterioration of human rights in China over the last several months, and we will continue to express that.”