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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
US Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20220

Re: US-China human rights dialogue  

Dear Secretary Clinton,

We write on the occasion of the forthcoming US-China human rights dialogue, scheduled to be held in Washington, DC, on May 13-14, 2010. As the first such dialogue under the Obama administration and the first human rights dialogue with China in two years, this represents a crucial opportunity to not only raise pressing human rights issues in an unambiguous manner, but also to improve the efficacy of the dialogue by setting clear benchmarks for improvements and making the outcome of the discussions public.

While a human rights dialogue with the Chinese government can be an opportunity to raise key issues, a dialogue also entails risks. In the past, human rights dialogues with China have been largely a rhetorical shell, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress. The Chinese government often points to the dialogue as a human rights "deliverable," an end in itself, or insists that human rights issues can only be discussed in the context of a dialogue.

At a time when the Chinese government is intensifying its repression so dramatically, there is great skepticism about the dialogue among Chinese and indeed, all who care about human rights. The dialogue should be seen as part of a consistent and principled engagement with China on human rights. This means that the US should regularly press human rights concerns visibly and consistently outside the dialogue, including at summits, meetings at the cabinet level, and by the US Embassy in Beijing. In addition, the US must also use the dialogue to press key human rights issues, with a clear sense of what benchmarks need to be met over time to make the continuation of such a dialogue worthwhile.

The dialogue comes at a critical time for human rights in China. Over the past year, the Chinese government has tightened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans, launched attacks on lawyers and human rights defenders, maintained a chokehold on media freedom, and bolstered government surveillance and censoring of internet communications. It has even obstructed civil society organizations, including groups working with victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake and child victims of the 2008 toxic melamine milk scandal.

Yet the Obama administration's record to date on effectively pressing human rights issues with the Chinese government is mixed. We appreciate publicly articulated concerns such as those by President Obama on World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2010, about restrictions on media freedom in China. We also were pleased that you took a strong stand on the internet in your January 21, 2010 speech in which you said, "Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century." We particularly appreciate the interventions made by the US Embassy in Beijing on political prisoners, and Assistant Secretary Posner's mention of Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng at the release of the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2009 on March 11, 2010. We are encouraged that Assistant Secretary Posner will participate in the upcoming US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Yet the approach remains inconsistent, which enables the Chinese government to disregard some US interventions on important human rights issues. As under the Bush administration, human rights have been downgraded in US-China summits and foreign policy discussions with China have eclipsed US efforts to press on human rights.

The US government's voice on rights is critical, but at times it has been missing. We urge you to publicly express concern about the March 25, 2010 de-registration of the Women's Legal Research and Services Center at Beijing University, particularly as you visited the Center in February 2009 and the Center's founder, Guo Jianmei, received the Global Leadership award from Vital Voices, an international women's advocacy group that you co-chair. The Women's Legal Research and Services Center is China's leading independent women's rights organization, yet it was abruptly notified that its affiliation with Beijing University had been terminated. Because China's restrictive laws governing the registration of nonprofit organizations mandate that applicants be affiliated and sponsored by a governmental unit, the decision effectively ends the existence of the center as a registered nongovernmental organization (NGO).

Human Rights Environment Worsening

The Chinese government has recently taken strong steps to restrict the operations of civil society groups, threatening to roll back hard-earned advances made by such organizations over the past decade. In July 2009, the authorities used alleged tax irregularities over foreign funding to shut down a leading public interest legal aid and research center, the Open Constitution Initiative (better known under its Chinese name, Gongmeng), and detain briefly its founder, Xu Zhiyong, and another employee for several weeks.

On March 1, 2010, the government started implementing new regulations that place additional burdens on the ability of domestic NGOs to raise funds from international donors. The regulations introduce new requirements for receiving donations from foreign charities, philanthropies, and nonprofit groups, including producing notarized agreements and detailed application forms. Few international donors have publicly objected to these new regulations. As no sustained progress on rights will be achieved without the ability of domestic organizations to do their work and speak out, we expect the United States to speak out clearly in favor of Chinese civil society.

One group working on HIV/AIDS prevention, the Beijing Loving Source Information Center, which has partnered with the United Nations Children's Fund, Oxfam, the China AIDS Fund, the Global Fund for Children, and other international organizations over the years, has publicly reported on the difficulties it has faced in complying with the new requirements.

Particularly troubling are the ongoing official efforts to disbar lawyers who take up politically sensitive cases. Two Chinese lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, currently face a permanent ban on their right to practice law after going to trial on April 21, 2010, on charges of "disrupting the order of the court." Those charges stem from an April 2009 trial in which they acted as defense attorneys for a follower of the banned Falungong. The charges are widely viewed as only the latest in a series of politically motivated government efforts to stifle the activities of China's already beleaguered human rights defenders.

In late May 2009, Beijing judicial authorities, without giving any reason, refused to renew the professional licenses of about a dozen of China's most prominent civil rights lawyers, leaving them unable to practice law. Control over the yearly renewal of professional licenses remains one of the main obstacles to the independence of China's legal profession, but Beijing officials had until then been relatively tolerant in granting renewals. One particular law firm, Yitong, was apparently targeted: some of its partners had challenged the government-controlled Beijing lawyers association over its mode of election and were subsequently suspended for six months in June 2009.

All of this is part of the government's seemingly successful attempt to break up the "rights lawyers" movement, which in the past decade had gathered strength in attempting to take at face value the Chinese government's claim that it is committed to the rule of law.

The Chinese government has also displayed increasing hostility towards individuals pressing the government for greater transparency. Those individuals include the Tibetan writer Zhogs Dung, who was reportedly detained by Chinese security forces on April 23, 2010, as apparent official retaliation for writing an open letter criticizing the Chinese government's April 2010 earthquake relief effort in western Qinghai province. On March 30, 2010, Zhao Lianhai was hauled before a Beijing court in a one-day closed trial on charges of "provoking disorder" for blowing the whistle on government failures to assist the thousands of child victims of China's melamine-tainted milk scandal of 2008. Zhao faces a possible prison term of up to five years.

In February 2010, a Chengdu court sentenced Tan Zuoren to five years imprisonment on "subversion" charges for what his lawyer said was an official reprisal against Tan's efforts to draft a list of the child victims of the devastating May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The previous day, the same court rejected an appeal by veteran dissident Huang Qi, who received a three-year prison sentence on state secrets charges for his investigation of the possible role of shoddy construction in the collapse of hundreds of schools in the quake.

We urge you to:

  • press the Chinese government to rescind the restrictive new funding requirements on NGOs;
  • speak publicly about the closing space for civil society in China;
  • urge that lawyers' licenses be renewed;
  • press for the release from prison of individuals who have criticized the Chinese government.

Arbitrary Detention and Enforced Disappearances

The Chinese government has also engaged in widespread arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances in China. Human Rights Watch has documented the enforced disappearances of 43 Uighur men and teenage boys who were detained by Chinese security forces in the wake of the ethnic violence in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang region in on July 5, 2009. Those enforced disappearances, the result of large-scale police sweep operations on July 6-7, 2009, have not been resolved. We have received unconfirmed reports of many other cases of disappearance in Xinjiang, but government restrictions on access make it difficult to confirm these.

Human Rights Watch has also documented that, since 2003, large numbers of Chinese citizens have been held incommunicado for days or months in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as "black jails" by state agents who violate detainees' rights with impunity. Government officials, security forces, and their agents routinely abduct people off the streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities, strip them of their possessions, and detain them in these unacknowledged prisons. These black jails are often located in state-owned hotels, nursing homes, and psychiatric hospitals. Black jail guards routinely subject these detainees to abuses including physical violence, theft, extortion, threats, intimidation, and deprivation of food, sleep, and medical care. In a rare admission, after Human Rights Watch published a report on this subject, Liaowang, a government publication, called for abolition of the system. We urge you to push publicly for an end to this unlawful practice.

We urge you to:

  • demand the Chinese government cease all arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances and account for or release any and all detainees who have been detained under such illegal grounds;
  • admit to the existence of and close down all black jail facilities;
  • bring to justice any government officials implicated in arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances.

Individual Cases

We also ask that the US government express grave concern about three particular cases of imprisonment of peaceful critics, which were included on the list of individual cases provided to President Obama ahead of his November 2009 trip to China. These cases are a shameful reminder that China remains a one-party state that is intolerant of dissent.

Liu Xiaobo: In December 2009, a Beijing court sentenced leading intellectual Liu Xiaobo to an 11-year prison term on spurious "subversion" charges for his role in drafting and circulating Charter '08, an online petition calling for human rights and the rule of law in China. On February 10, a Beijing court rejected Liu's appeal of that sentence. Liu's case should continue to be a focus of strong US concern throughout the 11-year period which the Chinese government appears intent on detaining him.

Hu Jia: A leading civil society activist, Hu Jia is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term for "inciting subversion against the state," an offense used to punish those who criticize the government or the Communist Party of China. The sentence, handed down on April 3, 2008, followed a trial that fell short of international fair trial standards. Chinese authorities have consistently refused to grant medical parole to Hu Jia, who suffers liver cirrhosis related to chronic hepatitis B infections. Hu Jia has been legally eligible to apply for medical parole since July 2009. Chinese regulations permit such applications from medically eligible prisoners who have served one-third of their sentence. The US should press for immediate medical parole. Showing support for Hu Jia will help bolster the morale of other activists.

Gao Zhisheng: Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has taken on some of China's most controversial causes by defending coal miners, Falungong practitioners, and underground Christians, has been the victim of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance since seen his abduction by security forces in February 2009. After months of official denials and cryptic evasions regarding Gao's location and well-being, security forces returned Gao to his Beijing apartment on April 6, 2010, and allowed him limited contact with friends and foreign media. As of this writing, Gao is apparently again a victim of enforced disappearance as he hasn't been seen or heard since he was seen leaving his apartment sometime between April 9 and April 12, 2010. Gao's case was also publicly raised by Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, in March 2010.

We urge that you raise all the issues mentioned in this letter with the Chinese government in the human rights dialogue, but also at the upcoming second annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for May 23, 2010, as a means of integrating human rights issues into the core of US-China bilateral policy.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to further discussions with you on this subject.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams
Asia Director

Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

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