New York Times Discusses U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue with IRI’s Lorne Craner

Always Awkward, New Rights Talks With China Now May Be Hopeless
The New York Times
By Andrew Jacobs

BEIJING — By many accounts, the two decades of on-again-off-again human rights talks between the United States and China have been tedious and unrewarding exercises in diplomatic theater. If the Chinese are in an obliging mood, criticisms of Beijing’s human rights record are grudgingly noted, allowing both sides to issue communiqués describing the meetings as “meaningful” or “constructive to enhancing mutual understanding.”

Michael H. Posner, the State Department official who is in the midst of two-day discussions with his Chinese counterparts in Beijing, is most likely finding the meetings more challenging than usual. To start with, Chinese intellectuals, dissidents and civil society advocates are experiencing the most severe government backlash in years, with dozens of people — among them leaders of several underground Christian churches and the artist and critic Ai Weiwei — having been locked up without charge over the past two months.

The Chinese government has been in no mood to discuss its heavy-handed behavior, warning the United States this week that it would brook no interference in its domestic affairs and adding, as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman explained, that “China does not fear the antagonism of other countries.”

American frustration has been on display, too. In a break from diplomatic protocol, the State Department on Friday unilaterally announced the meeting just days before the event, even though the Chinese are the hosts, and used unusually blunt language in insisting that the recent wave of detentions would be high on the agenda.

“Things are looking pretty grim,” said Kerry Brown, a China expert at Chatham House, an international affairs research organization in London, referring to the prospect of anything productive emerging from the meetings. “Since the 1990s, these dialogues have maintained their presence pathetically, but they are at the moment at a new low.”

Such assessments, heard with increasing frequency among Western diplomats and rights advocates, add weight to an argument being made by some that the time has come for the United States and its allies to find new ways to press China on human rights. Until now, the administration of President Barack Obama has sought to separate discussion of the subject from other thorny issues, like differences over currency or trade.

Although she said this month that she was “deeply concerned” about the crackdown on dissent in China, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been an advocate for separating human rights concerns from other discussions. In 2009, during her first visit to China as Secretary of State, she suggested that human rights should not impede American and Chinese cooperation on climate change, security issues and the global economic downturn.

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the annual human rights talks that several Western countries have with China have become a cynical mechanism that allows leaders to avoid raising such issues with Chinese officials during the rest of the year.

“Such dialogues are often used by governments to justify their lack of engagement and silence on human rights,” he said.

The meetings also serve Beijing well, keeping talk of uncomfortable issues like religious repression, extralegal detention and the use of torture by the police largely confined to closed-door sessions that more often than not produce few concrete results. As one British diplomat put it, “It allows the Chinese to put all their poison in a box and call it human rights so no other leaders can talk about it.”

Despite their criticisms, few diplomats and human rights advocates are calling for an end to the sessions, which have been suspended several times in the past — most recently between 2004 and 2008.

But some administration officials are privately saying that if the current talks end with no useful response from China, the human rights discussion should be shifted to the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a bilateral forum attended by high level officials that will be held in Washington next month. “The U.S. can’t at once be encouraging people in the Middle East to stand up for their rights, and then not respond robustly to what’s happening in China,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “Something has to be done.”

Although they have long been a target for criticism, such human-rights meetings — and there have been more than 100 since the early 1990s involving eight countries and the United Nations — have produced measurable results at times.

John Kamm, the executive director of Dui Hui Foundation, which advocates on behalf of political prisoners, said the discussions that took place soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when American-Chinese cooperation was at a high, spurred the early release of eight people on a list the American delegation presented to Beijing. In more recent years, he said, the discussions paved the way for death penalty reforms that led to a sharp drop in the number of executions in China.

Lorne W. Craner, Mr. Posner’s counterpart during the administration of George W. Bush, said his job was made easier by the White House’s muscular advocacy of democracy and human rights, issues Mr. Bush repeatedly raised with Jiang Zemin, China’s leader at the time. “They couldn’t just roll their eyes and say ‘Here comes the human rights guy,’ “ said Mr. Craner, who now directs The International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organization that advocates democracy around the world. “There was no ambiguity about how Bush felt on the issue. The message coming out of the White House now is just not as strong.”

Even then, he said, Chinese enthusiasm for the meetings began to wane in 2003, prompting Mr. Craner to discontinue the dialogues several years in a row. “I’m not the kind of person who enjoys talking for the sake of talking,” he said.

In more recent years, as China’s economic might has grown, those who participate in such sessions say they have become alternately combative and perfunctory, with Chinese officials lecturing Western officials on their perceived human rights failings — among them violent crime, racial discrimination and high rates of incarceration in the United States — while refusing to discuss such matters as greater autonomy for Tibetans.

American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by an Australian newspaper on Wednesday provide a rare glimpse of how bumpy the back-and-forth can be. According to confidential briefings between Australian and American diplomats in 2007, the exchanges during recent human rights dialogues between China and Australia had been “sharp and aggressive” and at times farcical.

Faced with allegations of specific rights abuses, Chinese officials would laugh off the accounts as inaccurate or try to “run down the clock with long monologues,” the newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, reported, quoting a diplomatic cable.

Despite his past support of the dialogues, Mr. Kamm of Dui Hua said he was prepared to change his tune, especially if Mr. Posner’s efforts this week are for naught — something that will become apparent in due course if none of the more than 100 political prisoners on the administration’s list — among them the American geologist Xue Feng, serving an eight year sentence for espionage — gain early release.

“It’s hard to justify flying a whole bunch of people to Beijing at taxpayer expense if the Chinese only want to talk about human rights in broad ideological terms,” he said, adding: “If you can’t talk about human rights without talking about human beings, then I don’t think the dialogues should go on.”

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