The Obama administration will soon face the first test of its policy toward human rights in China, after American officials announced on Thursday that they would resume human rights talks with Beijing in Washington next month.
The meeting will be the first round of the dialogue for two years. Human rights activists see it as a measure of the administration’s stated commitment to civil rights in China.
"This is their first opportunity to raise human rights in a concentrated fashion," says Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong with Dui Hua, a group noted for its work on behalf of Chinese political prisoners. "This is a chance to prove themselves."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered activists here and abroad on her first official visit to Beijing last year by saying that “pressing” the Chinese authorities on human rights violations "can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crises."
China's slow progress
Washington has been disappointed, however, by the level of Chinese cooperation so far on such issues as global warming, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the trade-related question of the value of the Chinese yuan.
Earlier this year, Ms. Clinton announced a US government plan to help Chinese users of the Internet to circumvent Beijing’s censorship.
Washington’s on-again, off-again human rights dialogue with Beijing, and similar dialogues that several other Western nations pursue, have faced considerable criticism recently due to the lack of results.
Two years ago, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor David Kramer said after the last round of dialogue that he hoped to see progress within months on media and Internet freedom, religious freedom for minorities, and the early release of certain prisoners. There has been no visible reform in any of these areas.
“Those hopes certainly seem out of place compared with what happened,” says Mr. Kramer, currently a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. “Our expectations, though very, very low, were not met. I would encourage Mike Posner [his successor] to hold his expectations even lower.”
Few 'concrete achievements'
"Few, if any, things can be pointed to as concrete achievements over the 20 years that the [dialogue] process has been going on," laments Mr. Rosenzweig, besides better treatment for some political prisoners whose cases Western governments have raised.
Dui Hua found, for example, that prisoners on a list the US presented to China during the 2001 round of dialogue enjoyed an early release rate triple that of other prisoners in the organization’s database.
In 2008, the Chinese government also gave information about the whereabouts and status of nearly half the 130 prisoners about whom Mr. Kramer asked, “though often the information is not very revelatory," he says.
The human rights dialogue is worth it, Kramer argues, “only if human rights issues are raised in other fora. Otherwise, you run the risk of marginalizing human rights and falling into a bit of a trap,” he says.
Chinese activists welcome US help
Despite the meager fruits, local human rights activists generally support foreign efforts to engage Beijing on this front. "Any kind of dialogue on human rights and the rule of law is helpful," says Jiang Tianyong, one of more than 20 human rights lawyers who were disbarred last year.
A dozen of them were eventually re-granted a license, which Mr. Jiang attributes to pressure from the US.
Jiang says he would like grassroots activists to be invited to the closed-door dialogue sessions, but this does not seem likely. During Kramer’s 2008 visit here, some Chinese human rights activists with whom he had been due to meet reported being warned by police not to see him, or of being detained in their homes until he had left the country.