Beijing Confronted on Rights Issue

China says it is 'making progress' on human rights as U.S. leaders raise the prickly issue at high-level annual talks.

2011.05.09
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden (C) shakes hands with China's Vice Premier Wang Qishan in Washington, May 9, 2011.
AFP
The United States pushed China to improve its human rights record during high level talks Monday amid Beijing's relentless crackdown on dissent.

"We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights," U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden said as he launched the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue between leaders and officials of the two powers in Washington.

"No relationship that's real can be built on a false foundation. Where we disagree, it's important to state it," Biden said.

"Protecting fundamental rights and freedoms, such as those enshrined in China's international commitments as well as in China's own constitution, is the best way to promote long-term stability and prosperity of any society," he said. 

But Biden said U.S.-China relations are critical and will shape the 21st century, adding that "healthy competition" between the world's two largest economies is mutually beneficial.

"For many of the world's pressing problems, it's a simple fact that when the United States and China are not at the table, the solution to the problem is less possible," he said.

Candid talks

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington had "made very clear, publicly and privately" to Beijing about its concern over human rights, adding that she looked forward to "candid discussions" on the issue and other key concerns of the two nations.

"We see reports of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists, and others, who are detained or disappeared," she said.

Clinton said history has shown that societies that work toward respecting human rights become more prosperous, stable, and successful.

"That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months," she said, citing the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East which have led to government leadership changes and radical reforms.

In a bid to counter the arguments by U.S. officials, senior Chinese official Dai Bingguo said that his country is making progress on human rights.
 
Dai, who holds the powerful position of state councilor, said more Americans should visit China to "get to know what the real China is."

"You may also learn first-hand the enormous progress China has made in various fields, including in human rights, and get to know what the real China is," he said.

Aside from human rights, U.S. restrictions on high-tech exports and Beijing's tight control of its currency and its massive trade surplus are expected to dominate the two-day talks.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said China needs to make its currency, the yuan, more flexible to reflect market expectations.

Geithner will co-chair the talks alongside Chinese vice-premier Wang Qishan, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While China's growing economic clout means the two sides are dealing with each other on a more equal footing than before, political tensions are also on the rise in both countries amid a broadening crackdown on human rights in China and ahead of a U.S. presidential race, analysts said.

Unexplained disappearances

Rights activists in China have been detained in their dozens in the wake of online calls for "Jasmine" protests inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.

"Every day, there are unexplained disappearances, and people being taken away with no formal process," said prominent social media activist Wu Gan, known online by his nickname, "The Butcher."

"We'd like a ray of sunshine, but it can't get through," Wu said. "I am in a state of constant anxiety. Things have definitely got worse."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on U.S. officials to keep up the pressure on Beijing over human rights, regardless of official role or forum.

“The Chinese government takes careful note of which U.S. officials and agencies do and don’t talk about human rights, so showing commitment requires across-the-board coordination,” said the group's Asia advocacy director, Sophie Richardson.

"If the people who deal with China on trade, financial, and defense matters raise concerns, the Chinese government will sit up and take notice," Richardson said in a statement issued ahead of the talks.

'No tangible results'

Meanwhile, Beijing University economics professor Xia Yeliang said that while the dialogues began in the hope of closer bilateral ties, they have largely failed to deliver tangible results.

"The differences between the two sides are clear to see, especially when it comes to very big differences in political systems," Xia said.

"Not only is China not continuing with market reforms, but there are growing signs of a return to economic planning."

Li Xiaobing, director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, agreed, saying that the current round of dialogue was very different from previous rounds.

"The Chinese government is taking a direction which is in marked contrast to the line it has taken in previous talks," Li said.

He said much of the hard bargaining between the two sides is likely to be over the appreciation of China's currency, the yuan.

Positions may harden

Brookings Institution senior fellow Eswar Prasad said economic policy discussions would likely be overshadowed by political calendars in both nations in the months to come.

This would "herald a gradual hardening of positions and less room for maneuver on both sides," Prasad wrote in an opinion article on the Institution's website, predicting "a rocky road ahead."

The Chinese will bring to the table concerns over discriminatory treatment of Chinese investors in the United States.

"As the U.S. government continues to request accessibility to Chinese markets for its firms, we now raise a similar request on behalf of Chinese firms," vice finance minister Zhu Guangyao told reporters last week.

"We have received many complaints from Chinese companies that have met discrimination as they try to invest in the United States, even though the U.S. side has repeatedly stated that Chinese companies are welcome," Zhu was quoted as saying in official media.

Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, by Bi Zimo for the Cantonese service, and by news agencies. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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