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(New York) – The US administration should task the diverse US agencies participating in a dialogue with China on July 9 and 10, 2014, with raising China’s deteriorating human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. Such an approach could help mitigate some aspects of Beijing’s current crackdown.

The US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) is among the most prominent annual interactions between the two governments. The co-chairs are US Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang. At least a dozen US government agencies and another dozen commissions participated in the 2013 S&ED. Two other bilateral dialogues – the Strategic Security Dialogue and the Consultation on People-to-People Dialogue – will also take place this week.

“It should be made clear to Chinese officials that Beijing’s repression can and will be raised at every possible opportunity,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Knowing they’ll have to account for abusive conduct – especially from the unusual suspects – might change the calculus for Chinese authorities.”

Since formally assuming power in March 2013, Xi Jinping’s administration has presided over a clear deterioration in human rights. The Chinese government has strategically restricted already-limited liberties especially with respect to the Internet, mass media, universities, and independent organizations. Dozens of peaceful government critics, including lawyers and anti-corruption activists, have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges without access to a fair trial. Numerous individuals are being denied adequate access to medical treatment in detention; at least one, Cao Shunli, died in custody.

Rather than addressing any of the fundamental grievances in Tibet and Xinjiang, central and local authorities have instead pursued a strategy of repressing religious, cultural, and linguistic rights, and as a result tensions in those regions have increased considerably. A leaked internal document warned of “seven perils” confronting the Chinese Communist Party, including “universal values” such as human rights and democracy.

The US has responded to some of these developments through its role on the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) at China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The US has also raised concerns on specific occasions, such as the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, the prosecution of particular individuals, and during bilateral human rights dialogues. But the interventions have not kept pace with the scope and severity of the crackdown, nor has the full spectrum of diplomatic opportunities been tapped to raise concerns or press for redress. For its diplomacy on rights to be effective, the US should exploit as many opportunities for face-to-face dialogue as possible across the full breadth of the bilateral relationship.

“The Xi administration has made its hostility toward peaceful criticism and the rule of law painfully clear, a position that seems unlikely to soften in coming years,” Richardson said. “The US has acknowledged that human rights abuses in China affect a broad swathe of peoples’ interests in both countries, and this dialogue provides an ideal platform for the broad range of US agencies to push China hard on its rights record.”

While the security component of this S&ED is likely to focus on tensions in the South China Seas and Northeast Asia, American diplomats engaging their Chinese counterparts on security issues should ask about the increasing violence and tensions in Xinjiang, and stress the importance of respecting basic human rights, particularly during Beijing’s “anti-terror” drive. Similarly, security and intelligence officials should inquire about the expanding surveillance apparatus across the Tibetan plateau, and the ways it is being deployed to restrict Tibetan’s rights.

While economic discussions will likely focus on market access and a bilateral investment treaty, the United States should also urge China to revise its notoriously opaque state secrets laws, which are used to prosecute peaceful Chinese activists, as well as international businesspeople. Growing restrictions on and surveillance of electronic communications, as well as media censorship and abuses of Chinese and foreign journalists, also deserve the attention of those diplomats focused on economic concerns.

Alarming recent developments in Hong Kong, including the brief detention of both organizers and participants of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, also merit expressions of concern by all senior US officials. Hong Kong is not only of critical economic and strategic interest for the United States, but as a unique area of China where civil liberties can be exercised, the US should use this opportunity to condemn the harassment of peaceful critics, and support the realization of full political rights in the territory.

Human Rights Watch also urged the US to avoid conflating the Chinese government’s position on human rights with the view of people in China. Instead of focusing public and private rhetoric on the differing views of the two governments, the US should instead speak of the common support for better human rights protections shared by people across China and the US government.

“When rights abuses are raised in meetings about investment treaties or military exchanges, a Chinese official may not be able to respond on the spot,” Richardson said. “But you can bet the fact that it was raised will be discussed afterward in Beijing, and ultimately may prompt Chinese officials to consider whether the cost to its reputation is worth the risk.”

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