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.

Andy Wong/AP
A Chinese man walks past a poster showing children play together in Beijing Wednesday. On Thursday, US and China enter a two-day 'dialogue' on human rights after two years.

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.

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.”

The US side of the table will be led by Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for human rights.

Advocates of stepped-up international pressure on China over human rights concerns were aghast when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a February 2009 visit to China, relegated human rights to second-class status behind closer US-China ties. The consternation prevailed through President Obama’s state visit to China last fall, when, rights activists, say the president failed to make recent glaring human rights retreats part of his public agenda.

Mr. Obama followed a pattern in China that he set in other foreign venues when discussing human rights – at least to a point, Richardson says.

“In Egypt, Ghana, and at the UN, he spoke about the US and dealing with rights issues here, and then he went on to take up the issues we see in those places and why they should be addressed,” she says. “In China he only did the first part of that equation, and it allowed the Chinese to hear one thing and say, 'Great, you have these problems, too.' ”

Lately, a tougher approach

The administration seems to have toughened its approach in recent months, rights advocates concede, as the Internet issue burst open and Chinese officials began issuing harsh sentences in high-profile judicial cases.

“You got the feeling [the administration] realized they weren’t going to get things in other areas as a result of going soft on human rights, so the tide turned a bit,” Richardson says. But she adds that it will be a step backward if the return to a human-rights dialogue becomes an excuse for not discussing the issue in other venues.

“If it simply allows Chinese officials to respond to concerns over rights issues expressed in other meetings and at other levels of government contact with a quick, ‘Oh, save that for the dialogue,’ then that will hardly be progress,” Richardson says.


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