China Slams US Report Saying Its Rights Record Has Worsened

By Patrick Goodenough | February 26, 2009 | 4:19 PM EST

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a visit to a power plant in Beijing on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – China’s human rights record deteriorated in some areas in 2008, according to a State Department assessment released just days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to downplay human rights as a priority in Washington’s engagement with Beijing.
“The government’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas,” said the department’s annual report on human rights around the world, released on Wednesday.
China’s state news agency Xinhua immediately hit back, accusing the State Department of distorting the facts, interfering in its internal affairs, and ignoring “the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights that have been widely recognized by the international community.”
China recently underwent its first “review” at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where it won support from allies including Cuba, Iran and Pakistan, and rejected as “politicized statements” concerns raised by Western countries. Critics called the process a farce.
The new U.S. report covers the period encompassing Beijing’s crackdown on Tibetan protests last March and reported abuses in other areas in the buildup to the Beijing Olympics, including suppression of dissent and restrictions on religious freedom. On Tibet, it assessed China’s record as having “deteriorated severely.”
“Abuses peaked around high-profile events, such as the Olympics and the unrest in Tibet,” the report said, citing “extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners.”
“The government continued to monitor, harass, detain, arrest, and imprison journalists, writers, activists, and defense lawyers and their families, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under the law,” it said.
Also of concern was continuing coercion in China’s population control programs, “in some cases resulting in forced abortion or forced sterilization,” and the detention and forced repatriation of North Koreans who have fled into China.
The report’s key assessment of China – “the government’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas” – is marginally harsher than last year’s, which read, “the government’s human rights record remained poor, and controls were tightened in some areas.”
The assessments in the 2005 and 2004 reports, by contrast, were harder hitting, both stating, “the government’s human rights record remained poor, and the government continued to commit numerous and serious abuses.”
The issue of human rights has long been an irritant in U.S.-China relations, and Beijing has over the past decade responded to the annual report with one of its own. While the U.S. report covers more than 190 countries, the Chinese rejoinder focuses exclusively on the U.S., accusing it of violations at home and abroad.
During her recent visit to China, Clinton raised eyebrows by saying that differences over human rights could not be allowed to interfere with priorities like “the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.”
While she did not say that she would not raise contentious issues, her comment to reporters traveling with her that “we pretty much know what they’re going to say” on issues like Tibet and Taiwan drew criticism.
Clinton did attend a state-sanctioned church service – as have other senior U.S. representatives in past years to show support for religious freedom – and met with Chinese women’s rights advocates at the U.S. Embassy.
Human rights groups and some Republican lawmakers expressed dismay, saying Clinton’s stance sent the wrong message to the Chinese government and people, and to others around the world.
State media, by contrast, welcomed the approach.
“Many had waited anxiously for the new administration’s China overtures, wondering if the precious signs of stabilization in bilateral ties at the end of the Bush years could survive the new White House resident’s ambitions for change,” the official China Daily said in an editorial.
“With Clinton in town highlighting common concerns, they finally received the much sought-after relief,” it added.
Xinhua opined that Clinton’s “positive posture has apparently laid an important foundation for the further development of Beijing-Washington ties.”
‘More than one approach’ 
While in Beijing, Clinton said the administration’s human rights policy would include supporting the efforts of non-governmental organizations and civil society institutions, describing that as “at least as important” as raising concerns with government officials.
Releasing the report Wednesday, Clinton returned to the theme, saying that while the U.S. would discuss rights in official dialogue with governments, it would not rely on just one approach but would also work with NGOs, businesses, religious leaders and others.
And, in an apparent response to the criticism generated by her comments in China, she said, “I’m looking for results. I’m looking for changes that actually improve the lives of the greatest numbers of people. Hopefully, we will be judged over time by successful results from these efforts.”
Since Clinton’s visit, advocacy groups have reported on several new concerns.
Human Rights in China (HRIC) reported that public security officials on Sunday –the day Clinton left China – detained and interrogated a writer and dissident named Wu Gaoxing for eight hours about recently-published articles questioning government policies, including its attempts to suppress a landmark petition known as Charter 08.
The petition, calling for political reform, is based on Charter 77, a democracy manifesto written in former Czechoslovakia in 1977. It was released by 303 activists last December, and has since then been signed by more than 8,000 Chinese citizens.
HRIC also reported on the difficulties faced by a Beijing law firm that has been shut down for six months. The authorities accuse the firm of allowing a lawyer to practice without a license, but the firm’s involvement in controversial cases, including the imprisonment of a blind activist who campaigned against the “one-child” policy, is widely viewed as the real reason for the clampdown.
Tibet advocacy groups, meanwhile, are concerned about the anniversary next month of last year’s deadly crackdown in the Himalayan region, as well as the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation during which the Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama went into exile.
The Tibetan Center for Human Rights, based in Dharamsala, India – home of the Tibetan government-in-exile – reported this week that large numbers of extra security force members had arrived in Tibet.
China reportedly has closed Tibet to foreign tourists until the end of March. 
The Dalai Lama in a message this week warned that Chinese authorities may be planning to subject Tibetans “to such a level of cruelty and harassment” that Tibetans will retaliate, thus paving the way for “an unprecedented and unimaginable forceful clampdown.”
He urged Tibetans “not to give in to these provocations so that the precious lives of many Tibetans are not wasted.”
Chinese state media in Tibet report that government officials have ordered any signs of support for the Dalai Lama to be crushed.
Tibet’s government-in-exile says that more than 200 Tibetans were killed in last year’s crackdown; China says 21 people died at the hands of rioters.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow