At Previous Human Rights Session, U.S. Responded ‘Forthrightly’ to China’s Concerns About U.S. Practices

By Patrick Goodenough | May 19, 2010 | 5:28 AM EDT

Protesters in Hong Kong demand the release of political prisoners held by China in a rally outside the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong on Thursday, May 13, 2010. The protest came as China and the U.S. resumed human rights talks in Washington after a two-year hiatus. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

( – The Obama administration’s approach to human rights dialogue with China – “an open discussion where you not only raise the other guy’s problems, but you raise your own” – appears to contrast to that of its predecessor.
Before the last such meeting in 2008, the head of the American delegation said he expected the Chinese to bring up concerns about U.S. practices, and that the U.S. would “hear and reply forthrightly” to them.
Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, is under fire after telling reporters that during last week’s dialogue with the Chinese in Washington, U.S. officials had brought up Arizona’s new immigration law “as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination.”
Posner told the briefing that “part of a mature relationship is that you have an open discussion where you not only raise the other guy’s problems, but you raise your own, and you have a discussion about it. We did plenty of that.”
The controversy over Posner’s remarks – Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl called them “offensive” and are demanding an apology – has focused attention on a forum that has long been dogged by Beijing’s hypersensitivity to criticism of its rights record.
Although last week’s session was the 15th round of the talks, they were only the second in eight years. The first 13 all took place between 1990 – when the dialogue was first established in the wake of the Tiananmen Square killings – and 2002.
Between 2003 and 2008, Beijing refused to hold the discussions at all, incensed by U.S. policies including a decision to sponsor a resolution critical of China at the annual session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 2004.
When China announced its boycott decision, the Bush administration suggested that the discussions had been a waste of time. “The last three or four rounds of discussions we had didn’t lead anywhere,” observed then State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Beijing’s touchiness on human rights criticism has been demonstrated most vividly in its response to the annual State Department report on human rights around the world, a report which Tao Wenzhao, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s Center for China-U.S. Relations, described last week as “the main saboteur of Sino-U.S. relations.”
Beginning in 2000, China’s State Council has responded each year to the annual U.S. report – which covers almost 200 countries – by issuing a retaliatory one of its own one or two days later, focusing exclusively on the U.S.
The Chinese reports accuse the U.S. of a catalogue of rights violations, covering areas from homelessness and prison overcrowding to the treatment of illegal immigrants and foreign arms sales.
They invariably conclude with recommendations that the U.S. stop “interfering” in other countries’ affairs and look closer to home.
Against that background, when the dialogue finally resumed in 2008 after a six-year hiatus, Posner’s Bush administration predecessor David Kramer acknowledged at the outset that his Chinese counterparts would likely bring up and criticize U.S. practices.
“The U.S. Government will continue to hear and reply forthrightly to concerns of others about our own practices,” he said during a speech at Beijing Foreign Affairs University.
“My delegation fully expects to hear and to respond to issues of concern and disagreement that our Chinese colleagues may raise during our upcoming human rights dialogue over the next several days. We do not consider views about our performance voiced by others in the international community to be interference in our internal affairs, nor do we think that other governments should regard our expressions about their performance as such.”
Kramer during the speech described democracy as “the form of government capable of securing and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms [and] … the form of government best able to meet the daily needs of its citizens over the long term.”
“But we humans are flawed creatures and any system we build is bound to be imperfect. Therefore, in order to protect individual citizens we believe there must be built-in correctives and counterweights to the power of the state, even a democratic state. These correctives and counterweights include a vigorous civil society, a vibrant, independent media, a legislature and judiciary independent of the executive power, and a well-established rule of law.”
Kramer told his Chinese audience that that “the United States, like all democracies, is not perfect. That said, our citizens claim a proud history of striving in every generation since our nation’s founding to bring our democratic principles and practices even closer together even as we seek to correct the injustices and confront the challenges of each new age.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow