When it comes to talk, the US-China relationship is the most developed in the world. According to officials in Beijing and Washington, the United States and China are engaged in more than 60 dialogues, consultations, forums, and exchanges on topics ranging from non-proliferation to the law of the sea. Many of these exchanges—including illegal logging forums and “sub-dialogues” on policy planning, Africa, Latin America, and South and Central Asia—fall under the umbrella of the Security and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), the third round of which was held in Washington on May 9 and 10.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo and US President Barack Obama. Photo credit: Jason Reed, Reuters

The oldest US-China dialogue, however, the human rights dialogue, is traditionally not part of the S&ED. First held in 1991, the 15th and latest session of the dialogue talks was held in Beijing on April 27 and 28. While boasting the longest history, the bilateral human rights dialogue has arguably had the least success in resolving fundamental differences between the US and China. When it comes to protecting fundamental rights, the two countries are as far apart now as they were in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the event that ultimately led to the establishment of bilateral human rights dialogues as a means for China to avoid sanctions and deflect criticism.

It seems the only result of the most recent session of the US-China dialogue was the announcement that another round of talks would be held in Washington in 2012. Increasingly cynical observers of the human rights dialogue are fond of recalling Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Governments Holding Bilateral Human Rights Dialogues with China

GovernmentYear InitiatedMost Recent SessionNo. of Sessions Held*
Switzerland1991Mar 2011, Bern11
US1991Apr 2011, Beijing15
EU1995Jun 2010, Madrid19
Australia1997Dec 2010, Beijing13
Canada1997Nov 2005, Ottawa9
Norway1997Jun 2010, Beijing13
UK1997Jan 2011, London19
Germany2003Jul 2010, Berlin6

*As of May 2011
Almost a No-Show

Not unrelated to its inefficacy, the latest round of the human rights dialogue almost didn’t happen. With the Chinese government cracking down on dissent harder than it has in over a decade and prisons bulging with political and religious prisoners about whom Beijing is unwilling to talk, there was concern in Washington that holding a routine closed-door dialogue would cloak the clampdown in normalcy. And that doing so would provide cover for Chinese police to continue, or even accelerate, suppression.

China, on the other hand, wanted a round, if only to keep human rights out of the S&ED. Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, warned Chinese officials that the absence of a successful human rights dialogue in April would cause human rights to be raised repeatedly, and at high levels, during the S&ED. For Chinese leaders, the S&ED has become the most important venue for the United States and China to discuss critical issues, and removing human rights from the agenda would represent a tacit agreement that, compared to other issues, human rights is not that important.

For this reason, when Washington proposed the dates of the dialogue, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) agreed. However, China never issued a formal invitation to the US side. Instead, the State Department announced the dialogue on its own, less than a week before it was set to begin.

In its announcement, the State Department pulled no punches, saying that discussions would focus on “the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests and detentions, as well as rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, labor rights, minority rights, and other human rights issues of concern.” It wasn’t until late in the afternoon on April 22 that the MFA acknowledged, without invoking the word “invitation,” that the Americans were coming.

Down to Business

Upon arriving in Beijing on April 26, Posner and his inter-agency team immediately huddled with outgoing Ambassador Jon Huntsman. The dialogue would be Huntsman’s last official activity before returning home to prepare for a possible presidential run in 2012. In the lead-up to Posner’s arrival, Huntsman’s staff made it clear to the Chinese that there would be a minimum of social events—no toasts or chit-chat over helpings of Peking duck. Nor would there be the usual staged visits to courts or detention facilities. Time wouldn’t be wasted attempting a joint statement or staging the joint press conferences that historically ended the talks.

In turn, MFA officials made it clear that Posner would not meet with any official ranked higher than his direct counterpart, International Department Director General Chen Xu. Posner’s request to visit Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, was flatly rejected. In fact, the Americans were warned against meeting with any of the few “sensitive people” not already detained.

At the talks, the Chinese side, led by Director General Chen, included a representative from China’s Ministry of Public Security. Each time Posner raised the case of a detained individual, the representative shuffled through a stack of papers. Regarding detained artist Ai Weiwei, the official parroted statements made by MFA spokesman Hong Lei at a routine press briefing in April. Hong asserted that Ai’s detention had “nothing to do with human rights or freedom of speech,” since he was under investigation for economic crimes. As Posner put it at the press conference that ended the talks, this answer “failed to satisfy.”

That said, it is notable that the US side managed to get China to talk about prisoners and detainees—Beijing has avoided doing so in recent human rights dialogues with other foreign countries. And it is possible that Posner’s vigorous pursuit helped spur authorities, the day after the dialogue ended, to release “disappeared” human rights lawyer Teng Biao. However, crowding out any room for confidence, authorities detained another prominent human rights lawyer, Li Fangping, the same day.

Aside from Ai Weiwei and Teng Biao, the American side raised several cases, including those of Liu Xia and blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng—both of whom are under house arrest—and imprisoned American geologist Xue Feng. China’s refusal to release Xue, despite a deeply flawed case against him, has become a major sticking point in US-China relations. Ambassador Huntsman made a point of attending the opening day of the dialogue so that he could raise Xue’s case personally. Having visited the American six times while he was held by state security police, Ambassador Huntsman has pleaded for Xue’s release in scores of meetings with Chinese officials.

In the run-up to the dialogue in Beijing, the State Department and the American Embassy stressed the importance of MFA response to the list of cases of concern that the US side handed to China during the previous round of talks, held in Washington in May 2010. A partial response was given with information about roughly a third of the cases on the list, but none of the responses involved sentence reductions or early releases made in 2010 for prisoners jailed for counterrevolution or endangering state security. The Chinese side also accepted a new list, longer than usual given the large and growing number of detainees, but did not commit to giving a response soon—or ever.

Posner ended his Beijing visit with a press conference on the afternoon of April 28. Calling the discussions “tough, frank, and candid,” Posner said that China’s “serious backsliding on human rights . . . dominated the Human Rights Dialogue.” Most significant for his Chinese hosts, he stressed that “discussion of human rights [would] be a part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”

A few days afterward, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai, whose portfolio includes relations with the United States, acknowledged that human rights would be discussed during the S&ED, saying that “it is necessary and beneficial to devote some energy to the issue.” At the same time, he warned his American hosts not to devote “too much energy to individual cases or cases that involve violations of Chinese law.”

“A Fool’s Errand:” Ratcheting Up the Rhetoric

There has been a perceptible hardening of American government statements on China’s human rights record. In an April 7 interview published by The Atlantic on May 10, the final day of the S&ED, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called China’s human rights record “deplorable” and berated China’s leaders for “trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand.” Both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary Clinton discussed human rights in public statements made at the beginning of the talks. President Barack Obama also pushed the point in a private meeting with State Councilor Dai Bingguo and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, the senior officials leading the Chinese delegation.

The unsteady course of the bilateral human rights dialogue, combined with its nebulous connection to improvements in China’s human rights record, has resulted in growing skepticism in cash-strapped Washington over the need to continue the talks. After tiptoeing through its first year of office, the Obama administration has decided to respond to China’s recent crackdown by raising the profile of human rights and intensifying rhetoric. The dusty 20-year-old dialogue is no longer the only or even most important channel for discussing human rights. Yet, ironically, the last round’s feeble accomplishments have brought the dialogue from margin to center in Sino-US relations, a place where, given improvements in economic and security cooperation and growing suppression in China, the dialogue seems likely to stay.