How the U.S. should raise human rights in China dialogue

One day ahead of two-day bilateral talks with the U.S., China’s Foreign Ministry rejected what it labeled “interference” in the country’s internal affairs under the rubric of human rights, according to international news reports. Despite this obstructionist tone, CPJ hopes that Washington officials, led by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, will stick to their announced agenda–and cast it as a matter of China’s own national interest.

A brief but direct statement from the U.S. State department Friday said that “discussions will focus on human rights developments, including the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, and arrests and convictions.”

CPJ has been reporting on the harassment and detentions of activists, online critics, and foreign and domestic journalists this year. The pressure ramped up after online calls for a Jasmine revolution in China were circulated in February, although some cases, like that of pro-democracy writer Liu Xianbin, began long before.

CPJ encouraged the U.S. and the European parliament to condemn this trend. In January, we also called on President Barack Obama to raise systemic press freedom issues with Chinese President Hu Jintao on his U.S. visit. These included:

  • Imprisoned journalists, with at least 34 behind bars on December 1, 2010, including imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, according to CPJ research;
  • Internet censorship, with the State Council of Information planning in 2010 to step up online propaganda and legal checks on the Internet;
  • State secrets laws that since October 2010 require telecommunications companies to intervene to restrict the transmission of state secrets. These laws are often used to imprison writers; and,
  • Sanctions against professional journalists, such as the Southern Media Group’s dismissal of outspoken columnist Zhang Ping in January.

Tomorrow’s talks represent another opportunity to raise these concerns and we encourage the U.S. delegation to do so. Getting China to listen is another matter. International news reports noted that Friday’s Washington announcement of dialogue, which Beijing is hosting, likely indicates resistance from the Chinese side. Then came today’s comments from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei: “We oppose any country using human rights issues as an excuse to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”

Getting the issues on the table is an important step, but the U.S. must also find a way to convince China that by addressing these issues, it is not bowing to foreign “interference.” It is responding to domestic calls for a free press.