Xi Jinping meeting Prisoner Obama in 2012

Participants visit a mosque during the 18th US-China Human Rights Dialogue.
Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC

The US Department of State, led by Acting Assistant Secretary Uzra Zeya, participated in the 18th round of the US-China Human Rights Dialogue in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, on July 30-31, 2013. In addition to officials from the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the American team included representatives from the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Chinese side was led by Director General Li Junhua, and included representatives from China’s judicial agencies and those managing ethnic affairs and the environment. The Americans met with senior provincial officials and visited Yunnan No. 2 Women’s Prison and a mosque where members of the Hui minority worship. Following the talks, the American team flew to Beijing where they met with Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu.

On August 2, Acting Assistant Secretary Zeya gave a press briefing at which she asserted that human rights conditions in China were deteriorating. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) countered with familiar rhetoric: “China’s human rights situation is in the best period in history and China is a country ruled by law.” Aside from announcing that their Legal Experts Dialogue will take place in November, the only other agreement reached by the two sides was to hold another round of the bilateral human rights dialogue in 2014.

The July dialogue was the first since the reelection of President Barack Obama and the ascension to Communist Party secretary and state president of Xi Jinping. It followed the Sunnylands summit between the two presidents in June and the Strategic & Economic Dialogue held in Washington in July. At both events American officials tried to convince Xi to rule with a lighter hand. Their efforts, and those by the American team in Kunming, appear to have had little impact. Days after the dialogue ended, Chinese police took several people into custody for their involvement in the loosely organized “New Citizens’ Movement,” known best for its anti-corruption activism. Among the detained were journalist Chen Min (陈敏)—formerly of Southern Weekly, he uses the pen name Xiao Shu (笑蜀); veteran activist and Charter ’08 signer Yang Lin (杨林), arrested on charges of inciting subversion; and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), detained for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.”

Last Year, China’s foreign affairs ministry decided to no longer accept prisoner lists or respond to those already accepted.

Laundry List of Issues

The US side raised a by now familiar list of issues including the treatment of political dissidents, human rights lawyers, and practitioners of unauthorized religious groups. It focused on the situations in Tibet—where more than 120 self-immolations have taken place over the last four years—and Xinjiang—where a large percentage of endangering state security trials take place. It also urged resumption of the dialogue between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

The acting assistant secretary described China’s alleged persecution of the family members of dissidents as a “worrying trend.” She mentioned the families of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), among others.

The Chinese side took issue with American policies towards minorities, immigrants, and prisoners. With news dominated by revelations of email surveillance brought about by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, the Chinese could not help but point the finger at the United States as an abuser of privacy rights. Once again, neither side discussed capital punishment, not surprising since both countries continue to execute those convicted of capital crimes.

China’s opening of a women’s prison to the Americans reflects the country’s interest in the rights of incarcerated women. Their interest was not reciprocated by the Americans, who were critical of the happy scenes (of gardens and prisoner performances) laid on by their hosts. Although China is studying the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), the United States, whose treatment of women prisoners is arguably worse than that of China, has evinced little interest in the rules.

Struggle over Lists

A feature of China’s human rights dialogues with foreign countries has been the presentation, by the foreign counterpart, of a list of “cases of concern.” China’s MFA has, in recent years, resisted accepting lists. In July 2012, a decision was made that the ministry’s International Department, which has responsibility for managing the dialogues for the Chinese government, would no longer accept prisoner lists and would not give responses to lists already accepted.

According to a source in the MFA, geographic departments in the ministry would consider accepting short lists from their foreign counterparts on the occasion of state visits. The International Department would continue replying to appeals from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its Special Procedures Division.

Diplomats based in Beijing who represent countries with human rights dialogues or consultations confirm that, since last summer, their Chinese counterparts have rebuffed efforts to hand over lists. In fact, the Americans’ first effort to submit this year’s list was turned down. At the dialogue in Kunming, Director General Li declared that the Chinese side would accept the list but made clear that this would be the last time it would do so. Acting Assistant Secretary Zeya replied that, as far as the United States is concerned, it will continue to hand over such lists in the future. In line with the new policy, the American side received no written information in response to lists submitted since 2011.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Uzra Zeya gives a press briefing following the dialogue.

During the dialogue the American team raised more than 30 cases of those it alleged suffered from persecution for their political and religious beliefs. At her press briefing, Zeya listed eight names (see table). The Chinese side provided some information on these cases, but, according to Zeya, the information “fell short of our expectations.” For its part, China’s MFA “urg[ed] the U.S. side to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop bothering China on some isolated cases.”

American complaints were a taste of what the MFA can expect at the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China’s human rights record, which will take place in Geneva on October 22. Washington will send a strong team to the event, most likely headed by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in September. Malinowski is a veteran human rights activist, unlike Zeya, whose strength is in the administration of the state department’s sprawling bureaucracy.

China has not announced its team for the UPR. One possibility for the official to lead the team is Senior Vice Minister Li Baodong, who has served as China’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York and Geneva and was previously director general of the MFA’s International Department. Li recently took charge of multilateral issues, a portfolio that covers China’s human rights diplomacy.

Critical Chorus

There are many American critics of the US-China human rights dialogue among members of Congress and, more broadly, the human rights community. One of the fiercest critics has been influential Republican lawmaker Frank Wolf, who issued a statement on the opening day of the dialogue slamming what he saw as meager results from the annual exercise. Characterizing the discussions as “cloaked in secrecy,” Wolf derided the approach taken by the Department of State as one which “time and again, failed to produce meaningful results.”

Chinese citizens used Weibo to post their own pointed comments. Leftists spoke of foreign interference with derision. Painting a bleak picture, one user scoffed, “the party is a mother; are you gonna tell me that when a mother beats her child, the neighbors should get involved?” Most of the views expressed, however, showed frustration not with the US, but with the results of the dialogue. One asked: “If this is the best of times, what would things look like in bad times?”

An Exercise in Insanity?

Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The United States and China have held 18 rounds of a human rights dialogue that stretches back more than 20 years. Though some specific complaints have changed, the fundamentals have remained the same. Both sides of the dialogue decry human rights violations in the other country. Neither side credits the other with improvements in the area of civil and political rights. On the contrary, year after year, the United States claims that China’s human rights situation has deteriorated. If that is in fact the case, why does the United States agree, year after year, to continue the dialogue?

Li Fangping, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers and himself a target of police harassment, bluntly acknowledges that the dialogue “achieves little in the short term.” But, with respect to results, the Sino-US dialogue was never billed as means to score short-term improvements. Moreover, in Li’s view, “from a macro and long-term assessment, there are great benefits [to the dialogue]. It helps make human rights public and mainstream, and more people can be aware of the issues through digital media.” Rights consciousness is certainly on the rise in China, and humankind’s penchant for short-term gratification notwithstanding, it’s surely not insane to spend time helping awareness bloom.

Selected Individuals Named at the 18th US-China Dialogue
Dhondup Wangchen
A Tibetan filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in 2009 and has been unable to obtain medical parole despite suffering from hepatitis B. Before his arrest, Wangchen produced a film in which he interviewed Tibetans about their lives under Chinese rule and their views on the then upcoming 2008 Olympics.
Gao Zhisheng
A lawyer who took on controversial cases and publicly called for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong, Gao is serving a three-year prison sentence in Xinjiang for inciting subversion. His sentence was originally suspended, but the suspension was revoked days before its expiry.
Mongolian rights activist, writer, and former bookstore owner, Hada has been under house arrest since he completed a 15-year prison sentence in December 2010. Charged with espionage and splittism for organizing peaceful protests, he reportedly suffers from depression.
Hairat Niyaz
As a Communist Party member, former journalist, and AIDS activist who advocated for dialogue among Uyghur and Han Chinese, Niyaz is serving a 15-year sentence for the crime of splittism in response to remarks he made to Hong Kong media regarding the Urumqi Riots, which erupted on July 5, 2009.
Liu Xia
Liu is a painter, poet, and photographer who has been under house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Liu Xiaobo
As a professor at Beijing Normal University, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion for his contributions to the political manifesto Charter 08, which called for the end of China’s one-party rule. In 2010, less than a year after his conviction, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1989, Liu left a post at Columbia University to join the pro-democracy movement in Beijing.
Ni Yulan
A former lawyer and housing activist, Ni has been arrested and detained several times since 2002. She is currently serving a 32-month prison sentence for “fraud” and “causing a serious disturbance” for protesting the demolition of her home.
Xu Zhiyong
A lawyer and civil society activist, Xu was detained on July 16, 2013. He is a chief proponent of the New Citizens’ Movementand co-founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and rights-protection organization shuttered under government pressure in 2009.