China and the U.S. opened what is likely to be a bruising meeting on human rights Wednesday amid a severe Chinese crackdown on dissent that has left dispirited rights advocates questioning the value of such diplomatic exchanges.
The two-day discussion opened behind closed doors as usual. In the lead-up, the two sides traded frosty language, with the U.S. saying it would focus on the ongoing campaign against dissent, as well as the rule of law, religious freedom and labor and minority rights. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned the U.S. not to use human rights to interfere in China's affairs.
Often an occasion for testy exchanges in years past, the dialogue is being buffeted by the broadest clampdown China's authoritarian government has waged in a decade or more. Hundreds of people have been questioned, detained, confined to their homes or simply disappeared, among them well-known lawyers and activists, apparently to squelch any chances for the kind of popular uprisings roiling the Middle East and North Africa.
With China determined not to yield to foreign pressure, rights groups and activists have called on Washington to show real results or perhaps consider abandoning the process.
"It has gotten to the point where you have to ask the question: By having these affairs do we in effect provide cover?" said John Kamm, a human rights campaigner who is frequently consulted by the U.S. and other governments.
While the U.S. is taking the immediate heat, it isn't alone. Rights groups have begun to question the value of the governmental rights talks with China, in general, saying the discussions have proved fruitless, failed to stop suppression of dissent and given Beijing a way to isolate rights issues from other pressing matters with foreign governments.
Chinese officials have been "sharp and aggressive" in blocking discussion of human rights abuses in Tibet in its dialogue with Australia, the Australian newspaper The Age reported, citing a confidential U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007 provided by Wikileaks.
The European Union's 14-year-old dialogue has "yielded no tangible results," Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament, wrote earlier this month in Britain's Guardian newspaper. He advocated suspending the dialogue if China does not move to release political prisoners and start political reforms.
Behind Chinese leaders' harder line is a sense of growing economic and diplomatic power and what they see as condescending and hypocritical attitudes from Washington in particular and the West in general. Beijing says its rights situation is improving and point to the economic development that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. In past dialogues, Chinese officials have tried to turn the tables, highlighting poverty and racial discrimination in U.S.
Beijing has often canceled the rights dialogues with the U.S. and other governments in protest. It suspended the discussions with the EU last year after the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo. The meeting has been rescheduled for next month.
Kamm, the rights campaigner, said Chinese officials have been less willing to engage substantively on human rights, releasing little or no information on political prisoners and often giving formulaic responses when asked about high profile cases.
To be more effective, such dialogues need to set out precise goals and be backed up by diplomatic engagement at higher levels, said Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
China's current suppression campaign has driven the U.S. and the EU to more open criticism. U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman, who is leaving his post this week possibly to launch a bid for president, took Beijing to task in a speech this month that raised specific cases likely feature in this week's dialogue.
Among those mentioned were: Liu, the Nobel laureate now serving an 11-year sentence for subversion; blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who remains under a highly invasive form of house arrest; and artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, who was detained at Beijing airport on April 3 and is reportedly being investigated for economic crimes.
Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this story.