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(New York) - The United States should demonstrate its concern over the Chinese government's crackdown on dissent by raising human rights at all segments of next week's US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S+ED), which involves more than a dozen government agencies from each government and is hosted in the US by the Departments of Commerce and State, will convene in Washington on May 9-10, 2011.

Since the uprisings began in the Middle East in late 2010, and Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the US in January 2011, the Chinese government has cracked down on dissent in an effort to crush any domestic move towards a "Jasmine Revolution." Since early February, Human Rights Watch has documented the enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention of dozens of lawyers, bloggers, and activists. The US has characterized these developments in China as "serious backsliding." Last week, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner described Chinese government responses to queries at the US-China Human Rights Dialogue on individual cases as providing "no sense of comfort."

"The Chinese government takes careful note of which US officials and agencies do and don't talk about human rights, so showing commitment requires across-the-board coordination," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "If the people who deal with China on trade, financial, and defense matters raise concerns, the Chinese government will sit up and take notice."

A number of US officials have characterized their approach to promoting human rights in China as a "whole of government" strategy. This approach recognizes that many US interests are fundamentally premised on the establishment of an independent judicial system, the free flow of information, and tolerance of criticism of government policies and practices in China.

Human Rights Watch urges that this approach be employed in the S+ED by tasking the following agencies with raising relevant human rights issues with their Chinese counterparts, such as:

  • The Department of Commerce and the Office of the US Trade Representative should express concerns about the lack of progress in legal reforms, many of which are linked to World Trade Organization commitments designed to create a more predictable business environment; about ongoing efforts by the Chinese government to surveil and censor the Internet, which poses a threat to the freedom of expression; and about the dangerously ambiguous Law on Guarding State Secrets, which has been used against Chinese government critics and members of the international business community;
  • The Department of Health and Human Services, and particularly its Food and Drug Administration, should express concerns about the corrosive influence of Chinese state censorship and the Chinese government's persecution of whistleblowers, which prevents timely reporting on food and product safety and public health;
  • The Department of Education should express concern about the systemic discrimination against the children of Chinese migrant workers that limits access to education, and the effects that this will have on China's development, particularly as it moves out of low-skills production in future years and requires a more skilled labor force;
  • The Department of Energy should not only raise the case of Xue Feng, an American geologist serving an eight year sentence on state secrets charges for his participation in the sale of a database regarding China's petroleum agency, it should also urge the US-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum to adopt international standards and safeguards on human rights and transparency in their exploration, extraction, and infrastructure projects;
  • The Environmental Protection Agency should ask for greater transparency regarding environmental crises in China and for the Chinese government to cease its persecution of environmental activists such as Wu Lihong, who after being tortured during his three-year incarceration has virtually ceased his advocacy work, and Karma Samdrup, a Tibetan environmental philanthropist now serving a 15-year sentence on trumped up charges;
  • The Department of Defense should raise not only concerns about the use of military forces in domestic Chinese policing operations but also the Chinese government's unwillingness to address the root causes of unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, which fundamentally compromise the country's stability; and
  • The Department of Justice should raise its concerns about disappeared, detained, and disbarred Chinese human rights lawyers and what such tactics mean for Chinese officials' claims to abide by the rule of law.

"Secretary Clinton has said that every day is human rights day at the State Department, so there's no reason the Strategic and Economic Dialogue can't also be a human rights dialogue," said Richardson. "Secretaries Locke and Geithner, as well as other US representatives, must do their part."

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