Reporters push Hu to respond to press freedom concerns. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Washington reporters press China's Hu on human rights

By Bob Dietz/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator on January 20, 2011 1:02 PM ET

Thanks to Ben Feller and Hans Nichols for raising questions about China's human rights and press freedom record. A lot of Chinese journalists are grateful, too. When we urged U.S. President Barack Obama last week to raise press freedom concerns in his meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao, we received no response. But when Feller of The Associated Press and Nichols of Bloomberg asked tough questions at the two leaders' joint press conference on Wednesday, we knew someone was listening. 

This is a tough moment for journalists in China. Hu Jia, who was jailed in 2008, is suffering from severe and unexplained abdominal pain while being imprisoned in Beijing. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, saw him last on January 14. She has told several support groups that he was recently moved to the prison's hospital, but she hasn't been able to get any more information. Hu Jia is serving a prison term of three and a half years after being convicted in 2008 for inciting subversion of state power.

If concern about Hu Jia's health seems overwrought, keep in mind the death on December 31 of Zhang Jianhong, founder of Aiqinghai (Aegean Sea), a popular website closed by the Chinese government in 2006. Zhang, sentenced to six years in prison for "incitement to subvert the state's authority" was released in June 2010 on medical parole after years of humanitarian appeals. Zhang, who suffered a disease of his nerve cells, died six months after his release, on December 31.

And, of course, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabao is just a bit more than a year into his 11-year sentence on charges of inciting subversion against the state. To send him to prison, prosecutors cited articles he had published on overseas websites.

Here are Feller's question and Nichols' follow-up, according to the official transcript of Wednesday's press conference. I've omitted Hu's attempt to dodge the question; he simply didn't reply to Feller. Nichols was having none of it, and asked the follow-up.

Feller put Obama and Hu on the spot:

President Obama, you've covered the broad scope of this relationship, but I'd like to follow up specifically on your comments about human rights. Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people?  Do you have any confidence that as a result of this visit that will change?  ... And, President Hu, I'd like to give you a chance to respond to this issue of human rights. How do you justify China's record, and do you think that's any of the business of the American people?

Obama's response covered familiar ground: He said he had been frank about human rights issues in discussions with Hu, that he expects change, and that China's evolution will take time.

Hu claimed a technical problem and didn't answer Feller's question at all. Instead, he accepted and responded to an easy question from CCTV. Bloomberg's Nichols was having none of it. He followed up Feller:

President Hu, first off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights, which you did not answer. I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.

Part of Hu's response:

China is a developing country with a huge population and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. ... In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.

That answer might be as substantive as you could expect in the circumstances.

Is there a chance now that someone can ask the Chinese leader abut Hu Jia's condition, and why his wife shouldn't be allowed to visit him in the prison hospital? Or why Hu Jia and Li Xiaobo are jailed in the first place?


you also have to think about the amount of people in China. China is not as unified in many ways as the US, as divided as the US might seem. You have greater disparity and various cultural mores that get in the way, and hence, although democracy may be a great ideal, you have to realize that with 1.3 billion people, a sort of authoritarian one aprty system is the BEST for China. Not to mention it streamlines and gets things done a lot faster than in a democracy, even though it is not as stable (anything can topple it over).

Furthermore, all this western fixation on China kind of misses the point: if the rmb were to go up, commodity prices would go up also, lowering the standard of living in the US, not to mention it would not necessarily create more jobs in the US, because commodity prices would be cheaper for the chinese, incresing production costs yet decreasing raw materials. Even if the rmb would to go up significantly, labour would be outsources elsewhere, perhaps malaysia, and the added value of the rmb woudl encourage consumption, which would start competing with the US in terms of commodities. So not only does the US risk not gaining many jobs (outsourcing labor to other areas while assembling in China), but it also risks increasing prices in commodities from added demand in a revitalized domestic consumption in China-hence, a competetive sort of situation would ensue. Not to mention that the Chinese government would see it as an excellent opportunity to buy US stocks in the process in order to hedge bets with such a destabilizing rmb increase.

You have to see it from the chinese perspective also…china is much more populated and any little fluctuation can have enormous consequences. Hence, market stability is of utmost importance in any decision making process. You cannot exclude the reality that China is still a very small nation in terms of GDP potential and has a fragile leadership. Any aggression from the western world could send it into a nosedive, in effect triggering a series of events leading to an economic collapse. China is really very fragile, not this superman that many in the western media make it out to be. In fact, this very fragility is precisely how an authoritarian government is justified, otherwise IT MIGHT have been democratic. The US is more homogeneous, both in legal language and in rich vs poor (middle class). Not so in China. 1.3 billion people, rapid industrialization, and growing disparities between cultural perspectives and rich and poor, make it perhaps the most fragile ’superpower’ ever. The chinese people accept that they must sacrifice full fledged democratic elections for stability because in a poor nation that is growing (china is still not an industrialized power if you consider its population) you cannot have ‘growth pains’ because any ‘growth pain’ can translate into complete collapse and social chaos. Hence, in many ways the chinese government is a byproduct of the chinese landscape and reality; overcrowded, overly-competetive economically (ruthless at times with no regards to social norms), and a limited time and resources. It is not to say it is perfect, but in many ways China’s governemnt is more mature than the west. Not only is the culture older and has gone through many periods such as the current United States in the age of warlord states, but it is the byproduct of a reality in a world of ever increasing competition with less resources. Technology is expected, especially nanotech, to remedy many of these long-standing concerns, but it may be an eventual decision that even the west must consider for the survival of global stability (economic stability also).

Perspective from a chinese, love,


I do not agree with the answer given by President Hu. I believe Human Rights is nothing to do with developing a nation whether it has a huge population or not. Human Rights is the birth right of every citizen and it should not be controlled by any mean. If every member of any organization or government are the right people they will respect the human rights. The ruling class of China has no respect to human rights and still pursuing hegemonism. It also intervene in other national internal affairs, e.g. Burma. The struggle for restoring democracy in Burma is hampered by China and the good economic friend of United States never think of staying out of Burma's internal affairs. The US though it supports the struggle for restoration democracy in Burma, however, cannot make convince to China to hand off Burma because the Sino-American economic relation is pretty strong at present.
Hi Bob, long time no hear from you. I owe you and CPJ a lot. Hope you remember me. Is the painting I sent to CPJ still hanged on the wall of your office? Give my regards to Elizabeth and other staff there. Please visit my blog Unfinished Struggle and Depayin Massacre. The blog address is My email address is [email protected] My name is Maungmaung Kyawwin. I am now living in Glen Ellyn.
Happy New Year!

Maungmaung Kyawwin January 23, 2011 11:14:11 AM ET

There's so much fixation on China's human rights issues by U.S media simply because U.S is, in itself, the worse human rights violation.The fixation is a sign of weakness because it is meant to cover and not condemn U.S human rights issues. at all.

What human right violation is that when a Muslims car are planted with GPS?

China does not treat it's prisoners like what U.S did to Gitmos and those in hidden cells in Europe.Lately, the treatment of Wikileaker in U.S prison is inhuman .

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