China: US Should Insist on Rights Benchmarks in Talks


  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) speaks next to Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the State Department in Washington on July 10, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

Make Dialogue Useful Tool For Human Rights Protection

(New York) – The United States should use the upcoming human rights dialogue with the Chinese government to demand concrete public commitments to change policies and practices that violate human rights.

The dialogue is to convene in Kunming, Yunnan Province, on July 30 and 31, 2013. It is the first since the new Chinese leaders, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, assumed power in March.

“The most important human rights dialogue in China is the one the government should be having with citizens who are calling for their rights to be respected,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “But in this realm the new authorities are showing bad faith.”

There has been little discernible or significant improvement in the government’s human rights record, apart from some cautious hints at changes to the notorious Re-education through Labor system, since the leadership transition or the last bilateral human rights dialogue in 2012. The new leadership has been intolerant of dissent and criticism:

  • Since March 31, 2013, at least 16 activists in Beijing and Jiangxi Province have been put under criminal detention for publicly calling on the government to require officials to publicly disclose their assets. The arrested included Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who has been at the forefront of China’s “rights defense” movement as well as that of the “New Citizens Movement,” and who was a visiting scholar at the Yale Law School in 2004 and 2007.
  • Since June 2013, at least five more activists have been put under criminal detention for “rescuing” petitioners held in a black jail in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province. The activists pried open and kicked down doors at the unlawful detention facilities, and then called the police. Instead of arresting the guards, the police seized the activists and detained them for “gathering crowds to disturb social order.” Other activists involved in the operation have disappeared and are feared detained.
  • On July 1, approximately 150 to 200 demonstrators who had gathered in front of the Foreign Affairs Ministry offices in Beijing for two weeks were briefly detained and questioned by Beijing authorities. The group had been demanding a role in drafting the Chinese government’s report to the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The UPR is a regular review of the human rights records of all UN member countries. As part of the review, each country is required to submit a report that includes input from the public.
  • The Chinese government has also refused to address the underlying grievances in the Tibetan areas and Xinjiang, and instead pursued repression in both regions. In the Tibetan areas, the number of people who have self-immolated, believed to be acts of defiance to the Chinese government’s rule, has risen to 121. In Xinjiang, the anniversary of the 2009 riots and subsequent crackdown on Uyghurs, an ethic minority that has long suffered discrimination by the government, were marked by reports of clashes between Uyghurs and the government.

The US government should press the Chinese government to adopt concrete and clear benchmarks, and evaluate the progress in subsequent dialogues. Without these benchmarks, the human rights dialogue risks serving as a perfunctory diplomatic exercise, rather than a genuinely useful advocacy tool. Following the dialogue, the US delegation should provide as much information as possible about the topics discussed and the nature of the Chinese government’s replies on issues and individual cases, to the public and the news media. Such accounts were absent or lacked detail following US Secretary of State John Kerry’s first visit in that capacity to China in April, the California summit between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in June, and at the end of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue earlier in July.

In recent years, a greater variety of US government agencies have participated in the human rights dialogue. This reflects the multiple relationships the two countries have in a wide range of areas, including economics, defense, and trade. It also demonstrates that key human rights improvements, including the importance of an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and the ability of people to share ideas peacefully without fear of persecution, fundamentally underpin a host of issues in the bilateral relationship.

The US government could further strengthen such efforts by requiring all US agencies that have regular relationships with China to raise salient human rights issues in meetings and to raise them regularly in public statements and media interviews, including with Chinese-language media.

“American officials should approach this interaction acutely aware that people in China who are trying to have exactly the same discussions with the government are being arbitrarily detained and prosecuted,” Richardson said. “US officials should use this opportunity to do what people in China want: to try their best to hold the Chinese government accountable for its human rights violations.”

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