US and China sit down for a belated talk on human rights
The question is whether the US-China talks, the first in two years dedicated to human rights, will produce any concrete gains for Chinese citizens. Some human rights activists even worry that such talks will be counterproductive.
The US and China enter a two-day "dialogue" on human rights Thursday that some human rights activists worry will amount to a mere exchange of views – with nothing in the way of commitments for progress.Skip to next paragraph
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Coming in the context of what activists say is a sustained backsliding on rights in China – from the well-known clampdown on Internet freedom to a less-publicized tightening of rights for minority populations like the Muslim Uighurs – the dialogue is viewed as a positive step. It’s the first US-China discussion dedicated to human rights of the Obama administration, and the first over all since 2008.
But such a dialogue can be counterproductive, say some specialists in human rights in China, if it allows Chinese officials to subsequently take a kind of been-there-done-that stance on rights in other contacts between the two governments.
“If some positive change comes as a result of this discussion, great,” says Sophie Richardson, a China expert with Human Rights Watch in Washington. “But we’ve seen that not only is this one of the vehicles that is least likely to produce the kind of change we want to see, but it can also in fact be damaging because it steals a sense of obligation from those vehicles that tend to be much more productive.”
An example? Other US government agencies whose pronouncements China cares about, she says. Last summer the Chinese government withdrew plans for a personal computer filtering system after the US Department of Commerce and the US Trade Representative suggested the system could constitute a violation of World Trade Organization rules and said it would be a threat to freedom of expression.
“That was heartening,” Ms. Richardson says, “and it also got the Chinese government to back down pretty quickly.”
Bossiness not productive
US officials say they want results from the dialogue and a commitment to concrete steps on human rights in the future, but they also emphasize that a “conversation” cannot be about the US telling China what to do.
“This is not about lecturing,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in discussing the dialogue with reporters earlier this week. “This is about helping [the Chinese] understand and identify issues that are part of our core agenda, but also clearly areas of weakness that China will have to improve on as it goes along.”