BEIJING (AP) – This week’s resumption of U.S.-China human rights talks after two years will spotlight what critics say is a deterioration in Beijing’s record on legal protections, free speech and civil society.
To Liu Xia, whose author-dissident husband is serving an 11-year prison sentence on subversion charges, such attention can only be a good thing.
“I only see benefits and no downside,” said Liu, who has repeatedly been refused permission to see her husband, Liu Xiaobo, since his Dec. 25 sentencing. “At least the authorities won’t do anything too outlandish since they’ll be under pressure.”
The meetings in Washington on Thursday and Friday are the first such dialogue in two years and are expected to take up individual cases such as Liu Xiaobo’s, along with a list of topics including religious freedom, attacks on the legal profession and China’s strict Internet controls – underscored by Google’s recent decision to stop censoring its search results in China on behalf of the government.
The talks offer the chance for President Barack Obama’s administration to show that human rights remain an important issue, despite the dialogue’s past failure to produce substantive results.
For China, they’re an opportunity to parry accusations over its record and reassert its claim that human rights are predicated on improving standards of living, rather than political reforms.
The talks come as the two sides exit a period of turbulence prompted by Chinese anger over Washington’s $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan – the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing as its own – and a meeting between Obama and Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.
Ties began moving back on track with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s attendance at last month’s nuclear summit in Washington, and the trend will be further cemented when the two countries meet May 24 in Beijing for the twice-annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which has traditionally focused on trade issues but will also include human rights discussions.
On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said this week’s talks are a chance for a conversation “about what the rule of law means in the 21st century.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday that Beijing is “willing to talk on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” but offered no details.
The talks come amid a string of developments that have alarmed the rights community, most recently AIDS activist Wan Yanhai’s decision last week to flee China to the U.S. with his family following increased harassment from authorities.
Wan, who is now staying in the state of Pennsylvania, said he feared that the rising number of disruptions, visits to his office by authorities, and harassing calls from police presaged more serious threats.
Wan’s complaints also included a tightening of controls over nongovernment organizations, including their acceptance of foreign donations, that underscores the Communist Party’s deep distrust of civil, political, and religious groups operating outside its direct control.
Authorities recently banned from college campuses the international charity Oxfam, which has run poverty alleviation projects in China for more than a decade, and shuttered the renowned legal aid organization Gongmeng, which had ties to Yale Law School.
Lawyers involved in sensitive cases have been disbarred, most recently a pair who represented a member of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement. Tang Jitian and Liu Wei said their lifelong bans handed down last week appeared designed to scare other lawyers away from taking on sensitive human rights cases.
Congregations operating independently of the official state-controlled church have also been repressed, reversing what had appeared to be a more tolerant attitude. In one recent incident, the pastor of Guangzhou’s Liangren Church, Wang Dao, was detained Friday and charged with “gathering a mob to disrupt public order,” according to his wife.
“We can see that in the sense of the rule of law, things are going backward in quite a few areas, especially repression of rights lawyers, Internet controls, and repression of NGOs,” said Beijing law professor and human rights lawyer Teng Biao.
This week’s discussions are the 15th round in a dialogue begun two decades ago, a period during which China’s economy has soared while hopes for greater political openness have languished.
Talks were suspended between 2002 and 2008 as the U.S. courted Chinese help in its priority tasks of defeating al-Qaida and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, while China’s will be led by Chen Xu, the Foreign Ministry’s director general of international organizations.