U.S-China disagreement, not dialogue, on human rights

The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which concluded in Washington today, may not have produced much in the way of specific commitments on human rights issues. But media appearances surrounding the talks have provided a forum for top leaders to re-state their views in public. 

On The Atlantic magazine website, Jeffrey Goldberg posts a fascinating account of a recent interview with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. CPJ has called on Clinton to speak out on behalf of journalists and activists detained in the roundup of government critics, sparked after calls for demonstrations modeled on uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa appeared on Chinese websites in February. Goldberg reports that her remarks are increasingly forceful:  

The Obama Administration has been ratcheting-up the rhetoric on China’s human rights record lately, especially since the arrest of the dissident Ai Weiwei, but Secretary Clinton, in our interview, went much further, questioning the long-term viability of the one-party system. After she referred to China’s human rights record as “deplorable” (itself a ratcheting-up of the rhetoric), I noted that the Chinese government seemed scared of the Arab rising. To which she responded: “Well, they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.” 

On the Chinese side, officials have been less forthcoming. In public, they have given no ground to the well-documented claims that China is going through one of its periodic crackdowns on dissent. We reported on Monday that China’s State Councilor Dai Bingguo told the U.S. China was “making progress” on human rights.

Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan appeared with U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the Charlie Rose show Monday. Rose pressed him, gently, on human rights: “With respect, there was a story in The New York Times today suggesting that there was, despite this good dialogue taking place here, in China, a real sense of crackdown … out of some fear or some concern about the U.S., or some Arab Spring kind of ideas coming to China.” Wang simply deflected. “I don’t think it is possible for events like Arab Spring to take place in China.”

U.S. officials said Clinton and President Barack Obama both “raised human rights concerns behind closed doors,” according to Agence France-Presse. Our hopes for missing journalists and social commentators, for the moment, rests in these private statements–but there is no sign yet that they have been more productive than the public ones.