May 29, 2008

China: Human Rights Activists Muted

Active ImageChinese human rights activists harassed by Chinese authorities and subsequently forbidden to engage with U.S. officials.

Below is an article written by Colin MacLeod published by USA Today:


Chinese activists said Tuesday [27 May 2008] that they were harassed by police and warned not to talk to U.S. officials visiting China for the first human rights talks between the two countries in six years. 

The U.S. official who led the talks, which ended Monday [26 May 2008], said it was too early to judge whether the discussions would have any solid results. 

Human rights abuses are under the spotlight in Beijing's Olympic year. The Games Aug. 8-24 [2008] offer "an opportunity for China to put its best foot forward," David J. Kramer, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, said Tuesday. "We tell the Chinese, 'Progress in human rights would certainly help that effort,' " Kramer said in Beijing. 

During a "constructive, productive session" Monday [26 May 2008], Kramer said the U.S. side raised issues such as media, Internet and religious freedom, prisoners of concern and the troubled Himalayan region of Tibet, scene of anti-Chinese riots in March. 

It remains "too early to judge" whether the talks will produce concrete results, he said. Despite a "candid exchange" on some specific human rights cases, Kramer admitted that his counterparts declined to reveal how many people had been detained after the incidents in March. 

Though several countries hold bilateral talks on human rights with China, those between Beijing and Washington carry more weight and are fraught with more politics. Human rights "have been a source of tension in our relationship. We want to turn it into a more positive factor," said Kramer, who added that the United States has "no illusions" about the talks. 

The United States abandoned the rights dialogue in 2002 because "it was becoming dialogue for the sake of dialogue," Kramer said, and "a check-the-box kind of activity." 

In February [2008], Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice secured Beijing's agreement to resume the talks, Kramer said. China's demand for no lecturing was reiterated Tuesday by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, who quoted Kramer's host, Wu Hailong, the ministry's international director, as saying during the talks, "Disputes on human rights should be settled in a constructive manner, and there should be no double standards or interference in the internal affairs of the other." 

China is "fully confident about human rights, and human rights in China will make even greater progress," Qin quoted Wu as saying. 

Several Chinese citizens have reported harassment from police in recent days to prevent them from meeting the U.S. delegation. Local lawyer Zhang Xingshui said he was invited to a working lunch with Kramer on Tuesday [27 may 2008] but declined after a police visit to his home Sunday [25 May 2008] evening. 

"They persuaded me not to meet the U.S. visitors. They did not say what would happen, but maybe they will give pressure to my work," said Zhang, who regularly takes on human rights cases. "I am afraid, so I have to give up this opportunity. There are definite human rights problems in China, such as limitations on freedom of speech. But there is definite progress, too. The police were friendly to me and did not issue an order, whereas in the past they would have taken me outside Beijing to Tangshan or another city." 

HIV activist Wan Yanhai said he had been under 24-hour police surveillance for four days — and he was not even invited to meet the U.S. visitors. "I don't understand if this is pressure or progress," Wan said. He said the police follow his every move and informed him they would do so, in contrast to previous furtive surveillance and periods of detention. 

"I understand the difficulty of the security challenge the government faces before the Olympics, but some of the measures they are taking are beyond my expectation," said Wan, citing recent crackdowns against "vulnerable populations" such as the gay community in Beijing, migrant workers, non-governmental organizations and the Muslim Uighur community. "I have nothing to do with the (Sino-U.S.) dialogue," said Wan, who plans to work outside Beijing in August to avoid any Olympic crackdown. 

The danger of speaking out in China is highlighted by the detention of writer Guo Quan this month [May 2008], according to the PEN American Center. Guo was detained May 17 [2008] for his articles on the government response to the earthquake May 12 [2008] in Sichuan province and may face subversion charges in what a PEN statement called part of "a pattern of intensified harassment of dissident writers in China." 

Kramer called China's earthquake response a "model for many countries to follow." He acknowledged the United States is "far from perfect on human rights," and "we have been making mistakes for nearly 232 years and will continue to do so." However, Kramer said, the United States has the institutional and social means to check those mistakes. "The U.S. continues to be the party on the other end of the line when people call 911 on human rights. We will continue to speak out on human rights," he said.