Asia-Pacific

China and US to hold human rights talks

A poster of detained Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei at a protest in Hong Kong on 22 April 2011
Image caption The US is concerned about the fate of Chinese activists such as Ai Weiwei

When Chinese and US officials sit down to talk about human rights over the next two days, they will have plenty to discuss.

Although officials do not admit it, China has launched one of its most extensive crackdowns on dissent in years.

Government critics including lawyers, bloggers and activists have been targeted.

Some have disappeared, others have been given long prison sentences and even more have faced other forms of police pressure.

The crackdown appears designed to maintain stability at home - but it has led to criticism from abroad.

Private diplomacy

US officials said they would not shirk from raising the issue when the two countries meet for the US-China Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing.

"Discussions will focus on human rights developments, including the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extra-legal detentions, and arrests and convictions," the US State Department said in a statement that will no doubt have annoyed China.

Human rights are not always the most important issue between nations.

This dialogue between Washington and Beijing was suspended for several years before it restarted in 2008.

Image caption Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (r) is China's highest-profile dissident - but not its only one

But China's recent crackdown seems to have reignited the debate in the United States, according to Professor David Zweig, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"There has been a shift in the US position on this issue that goes back to the Nobel Peace Prize," said Prof Zweig, referring to Liu Xiaobo, the dissident writer who won last year's prize.

Mr Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for helping to draft Charter 08, a manifesto calling for political change in China.

When it comes to human rights, many foreign governments think that private diplomacy is more effective than public criticism.

But that might be changing, at least for some.

"I think that there is a feeling in the United States that not raising the issue doesn't mean the situation will get any better," said Prof Zweig.

'Situation getting worse'

The departing US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, did not pull his punches when he delivered a speech in Shanghai earlier this month.

"The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur," he said.

Ambassador Huntsman mentioned Liu Xiaobo - and some of the other government critics who have been targeted by the Chinese authorities.

They include Ai Weiwei, the artist who was recently detained while trying to leave the country, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who has been put under house arrest since his release from prison last year.

China does not like this kind of interference in what it sees as its own affairs.

"We are firmly against interfering in our internal affairs under the pretext of human rights issues," said a foreign ministry spokesman recently.

He was responding to criticism of China in the annual human rights report released by the US State Department. That report spoke of "negative" trends.

Despite China's refusal to talk about the latest crackdown, it is nonetheless taking place.

The authorities have detained a number of high-profile activists, but have also put pressure on other less well-known groups.

"I have contact with many rights and social groups - I meet them often. They complain that the situation is getting worse," said Li Fan, director of the Beijing-based think-tank The World and China Institute.

Some believe China has launched this crackdown because it fears unrest similar to that taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.

Others believe that politicians looking to be promoted in next year's leadership reshuffle are trying to show how tough they are.

Whatever the reason, it means there will be a great deal to discuss at the US-China Human Rights Dialogue.

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