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Is Talking to Beijing About Human Rights a Waste of Time?

May 13, 2010

Why Obama's new meetings with China could do more harm than good.


Why aren't human rights activists who work on China more enthusiastic about the upcoming meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials on the critical topic of human rights? The discussions, to begin in Washington on May 13, are the first human rights dialogue between the two countries since May 2008 and the first to be hosted by President Barack Obama's administration. Yet expectations that the meetings will produce any meaningful change, or even a clear set of goals, are remarkably low.



It's of course natural to have low hopes for a human rights dialogue with China, given how bad its record on the issue is. In the last month alone, we've observed two important nongovernmental organizations paralyzed by government interference. The Women's Legal Research and Services Center, China's leading women's legal rights organization, was abruptly deregistered by Beijing University, leaving it in legal limbo. And Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent HIV/AIDS activists, went into self-exile in the United States last weekend, stating sensibly enough, "It was no fun waiting to be attacked by government agencies all the time."

As part of a continuing attack on rights lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei joined the growing ranks of lawyers stripped of their licenses for daring to take on "sensitive" cases, further emasculating China's fledgling "rights protection" movement. And Gao Zhisheng, another courageous activist who chose to take the government at its word and tried to make use of the legal system to redress common grievances, has been disappeared -- for a second time.

But the problem isn't just China -- it's also the way the talks are structured. The dialogue process lacks meaningful benchmarks for progress, or consequences for failing to improve the situation. The Chinese government doesn't send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock.

Given how ineffective the dialogues have been -- and how ineffective similar talks held by other countries with China have also been -- they also create a risk of excluding other potentially more fruitful avenues for human rights discussion, such as having cabinet members raise an issue or case, or having senior government officials speak publicly and in more detail about those discussions. The current talks may also be used as an excuse for sidelining human rights from important talks that we know the Chinese government does care about, such as the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

However, assuming that the dialogues will continue and assuming that the Chinese government will continue to filibuster and avoid real issues, how should the Obama administration use the sessions to its best advantage in bringing about real improvements for the Chinese people?

First, the administration should visibly and publicly commit to raising human rights issues outside the dialogue. I can already hear the Obama administration's rebuttal: "We regularly raise human rights issues at the highest levels, and in frank terms." But if the private language matches the public rhetoric, it's hardly the kind of precise, concrete questioning the Chinese government needs to hear. We need to hear agencies other than the State Department talk to their Chinese counterparts about human rights issues. For example, the agencies sponsoring rule-of-law projects in China should speak out publicly about China's practice of disbarring lawyers, which makes a mockery of these rule of law initiatives.

If the administration wants to claim a "whole of government" approach to promoting human rights in China, diverse officials and agencies must better coordinate their outreach. In July 2009, the Commerce Department and the U.S. trade representative (USTR) publicly opposed the Chinese government's proposal to mandate filtering software on all personal computers. The Commerce Department and the USTR described the software not only as a barrier to trade, but also as a threat to the right to expression. Such assessments should be a regular feature of U.S. diplomacy with China.

Second, the administration must do a better job outside these talks of not undermining its stated commitment to human rights. We're glad not to have heard anything akin to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's February 2009 comments that human rights "can't interfere" in the bilateral relationship, but we continue to hear too many public comments from U.S. officials about the United States and China "agreeing to disagree" on human rights. Comments like this make it easy for the Chinese government to choose the rhetoric that it prefers, and, after all, if the administration does go into these exercises with no expectation of rapprochement, why have a dialogue at all?


Finally, the United States can -- and definitely should -- do a better job of standing publicly on key human rights issues with other like-minded countries. There have been a few significant moments of solidarity, particularly the image of a few dozen staff members from rights-supporting embassies in Beijing standing on courthouse steps awaiting verdicts handed down to prominent government critics.

Too often the United States and the dozen other countries that conduct human rights dialogues with the Chinese government opt not to act together, citing the Chinese government's intense dislike of being "ganged up on" by the West. But these governments, which often express virtually identical views on identical topics to the Chinese government in private, need to stand together in public, if for no other reason than to show the stark differences between their systems and Beijing's. Human rights standards are universal, and sometimes solidarity -- and diplomacy -- needs to be, too.  

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES: The Beijing courthouse where leading Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was sentenced in Dec. to 11 years in jail on subversion charges.


Sophie Richardson is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

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