Lack of Progress on Rights Should Take Center Stage
July 9, 2013
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last Strategic and Economic Dialogue, it’s that being visibly tough on human rights issues is wholly compatible with making progress on other bilateral concerns. Virtually all of the US’ goals – diplomatic, economic, strategic – depend on securing the rule of law, the free flow of information, and the ability of people to peacefully speak their minds in China.
Sophie Richardson, China director

(New York) – The United States should seize the opportunity to demonstrate its coordinated approach to human rights promotion in China by raising human rights at all segments of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Human Rights Watch said today.  The Dialogue, hosted in the US by the Departments of Commerce and State, convenes in Washington, DC, on July 10-11, 2013.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue involves more than a dozen agencies from each government. Although human rights issues are now regularly raised by some US officials, there is still no overall coordinated US strategy that would likely create greater pressure on the Chinese government.

The last round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, in May 2012, was to some extent overshadowed by blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng seeking refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing, though some US officials noted after the completion of the Dialogue and Chen’s departure for the US that the heightened pressure had not harmed discussion.

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last Strategic and Economic Dialogue, it’s that being visibly tough on human rights issues is wholly compatible with making progress on other bilateral concerns,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Virtually all of the US’ goals – diplomatic, economic, strategic – depend on securing the rule of law, the free flow of information, and the ability of people to peacefully speak their minds in China.”

In recent weeks, the US has taken some noteworthy steps in pressing human rights concerns, including US Ambassador to China Gary Locke’s visit to Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region; efforts to assist Chen Kegui, the imprisoned nephew of Chen Guangcheng; and a statement noting the 24th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Yet there was little public discussion of what human rights issues were raised by US Secretary of State John Kerry on his first visit in that capacity to China in April 2013, or by President Obama during his California summit with President Xi in June 2013.

At the same time, the Chinese government continues to commit – or fails to prevent – serious human rights abuses. In the three months since Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency, the Chinese government has, among other steps:

  • Arrested and detained at least 15 anticorruption activists, despite Xi’s own public commitments to cracking down on corruption; one of them, Liu Ping, is now scheduled to go on trial on July 18, on charges of “illegal assembly”;
  • Failed to take any visible positive steps towards addressing the underlying grievances in Tibet and Xinjiang, some of which appear to be contributing towards increasing violence in both regions; and
  • Continued to persecute government critics and their family members, including handing down an unusually harsh 11 year sentence on charges of fraud to Liu Hui, the brother-in-law of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, in June 2013, and forcibly evicting sex worker activist Ye Haiyan from her new home in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, in July 2013.

Human Rights Watch has long encouraged the US and other governments to take a broader approach to human rights in China, particularly as the number of government agencies and officials interacting with Chinese counterparts has grown exponentially over the last decade.  Greater human rights protections in China are in the US interest, and raising these concerns outside the normal channels, through diverse and coordinated actors, is more likely to produce results. US officials have described their strategy as a “whole of government” approach, yet there is little evidence of officials, other than those from the State Department or the White House, raising such concerns.

Human Rights Watch urges that this approach be employed by tasking the following agencies with raising relevant human rights issues with their Chinese counterparts:

  • The Department of Justice should ask about the host of human rights abuses committed by or with the tacit acceptance of the domestic security apparatus, including the ongoing use of illegal detention facilities known as “black jails,” the failure to prevent abuses against sex workers, or the failure to curb abuses by para-police known as chengguan
  • The Department of Defense should express concern about the tensions raised by the expanding surveillance apparatus in Tibetan areas, and about reports of unrest in Xinjiang, both of which raise questions about Chinese national security strategies, including on its borders;
  • The Department of Health and Human Services should ask about the ongoing use of forcible drug treatment and involuntary commitment in psychiatric facilities;
  • The Department of Education should inquire about the Chinese government’s strategy for achieving inclusive education for children with disabilities; and
  • The Department of Commerce and United States Trade Representative (USTR) should raise concerns about the barriers to trade presented by internet filtering, including the reports that many virtual private networks (VPNs), considered critical by many businesses, are now being blocked by the firewall. 

“As the most high-profile vehicle for US-China diplomacy, and as the interaction with the broadest agenda, the Dialogue is an ideal occasion on which a host of US interests can and should speak up about human rights,” Richardson said. “The lack of progress on these issues needs to take center stage.”