U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue: Time to Make it Effective

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(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, May 10, 2010) On May 13, the governments of China and the United States are set to hold the next round of talks in the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue. These dialogues, which have been held on 12 previous occasions since 1989, are widely viewed as not having yielded any substantive results. In order to break from this precedent, CHRD believes that the two sides must agree to specific commitments and benchmarks by which to measure progress after the talks. The involvement of Chinese civil society, which is crucial to addressing human rights concerns and monitoring government action after the dialogue, must be stressed during these talks as well.

CHRD believes that the human rights dialogue could be made more effective if the U.S. government focuses on concerns that the Chinese government already feels pressure to address as a result of domestic public debate. Moving forward, these human rights issues should be raised in other bilateral dialogues, so that human rights concerns are not relegated to only one forum. Finally, the U.S. government must continue to raise individual cases of prisoners of conscience, as such actions have proven in the past to have a positive effect on the situation of those incarcerated.

“It will take a serious commitment from both sides to make this round of talks anything more than a public relations exercise,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s International Director. “The Chinese government must stop using these dialogues as an excuse to avoid taking action to curb violations of human rights, and the U.S. government must make the talks one part of a comprehensive and consistent human rights policy towards China.”

CHRD urges the U.S. government to highlight five critical areas of concern – difficulties facing human rights lawyers, internet freedom, labor rights, torture, and forced evictions – which deserve specific attention during the upcoming dialogue (see attached appendix for further details). While there are certainly many other pressing human rights issues which merit discussion in the upcoming dialogue – including religious freedom, rights of ethnic minorities, and children’s rights – these five issues have generated considerable interest and public debate within China in recent months.

CHRD also believes that some of these issues, especially internet freedom and labor rights, are closely linked to topics which may be discussed during other bilateral talks, such as the next round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which will be held in Beijing starting on May 24. By bringing such concerns into other diplomatic exchanges, the U.S. government may be able to exert greater pressure on the Chinese government to change its practices on human rights.

Furthermore, in order to independently monitor whether the Chinese government takes any concrete steps to address issues raised in the dialogue, Chinese civil society actors must be involved. Chinese officials have steadfastly refused to allow independent Chinese non-governmental organizations the opportunity to participate in bilateral human rights dialogues, including the upcoming talks. The U.S. government must facilitate the participation of NGOs before, during, and after the talks to send a clear message to the Chinese government.

Finally, CHRD urges the U.S. government to raise the cases of persecuted human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience during the dialogue, prioritizing the cases of those individuals who are seriously ill (such as Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng) or who are serving particularly long sentences (such as Liu Xiaobo and Guo Quan). CHRD continues to call for the unconditional and immediate release of these and all other Chinese prisoners of conscience.

Media Contacts:

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin), +852 8191 6937 or +1 301 547 9286

Jiang Yingying, Researcher (English and Mandarin), +852 8170 0237

Appendix: Five issues that should be raised in the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue

1. Difficulties Facing Human Rights Lawyers

In the past year the Chinese government took unprecedented steps to harass and intimidate human rights lawyers. Primarily concerned with two issues—lawyers who handled politically sensitive cases, such as defending Falun Gong practitioners, and lawyers who advocated direct elections to the leadership of the Beijing Lawyers’ Association—the authorities threatened both the jobs and safety of human rights lawyers in higher numbers than in recent years. In May 2009, the licenses of a group of about 20 human rights lawyers were not renewed by the judicial authorities, and six still have not had their licenses renewed as of the time of writing. [1] Two of the original 20, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, recently had their licenses permanently revoked, while two more lawyers had their licenses suspended over the course of the year. In the first half of 2010, a handful of lawyers were beaten by either government officials or unidentified individuals believed to be instructed by the authorities. At least two lawyers were sentenced to prison for defending their clients in cases with human rights implications.

2. Internet Freedom

In the past year, Chinese netizens have demonstrated a growing willingness to challenge the government’s censorship policies not only online, but in real space as well. Coupled with the fallout from Google’s decision to stop filtering results on its Chinese-language search engine, the issue of freedom of expression online may be more of a concern among China’s 400 million internet users now than ever before. And yet, the Chinese government has shown every indication that it not only intends to maintain current censorship practices and restrictions on internet use, but to in fact increase such efforts in the foreseeable future. In 2009, the authorities blocked access to proxy servers and other tools crucial to digital activists and citizens seeking to circumvent restrictions on their internet use, continued to block or shut down blogs and web pages critical of the government, and introduced administrative regulations which demand internet users provide personal information in greater detail than previously required. Most recently, on May 3, 2010, the Chinese government announced its latest internet campaign, this time designed to target online crimes as well as “harmful information” from “overseas hostile forces.”

3. Labor Rights

The Chinese government is ever-more worried about the continued rise in the number of “mass incidents,” or large-scale protests. Labor disputes remain one of the major sources of such protests, and yet Chinese workers face persecution if they try to organize independent unions to represent workers in negotiations with their employers. The only official union in China is the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is a centralized and hierarchical body that rarely, if ever, truly represents workers’ interests. Across China, workers’ spontaneous strikes and protests break out as they find no effective ways to express themselves or bargain collectively. When workers do try to organize among themselves to press their demands, the government labels them “underground unions” and reacts strongly to suppress them. At a recent meeting organized by the central government’s Politics and Legal Committee, officials stressed the importance of cracking down on these “underground” union activities as they have a “damaging effect” on the stability of the regime.[2]

4. Torture

The persistence of torture has received nationwide attention following the death of a young man in February 2009, which the authorities initially attributed to injuries sustained while playing a hide-and-seek game (duomaomao). Other similar cases of alleged torture were subsequently exposed on the internet, and the government responded to these concerns by publishing articles in the state media recognizing torture’s existence, pledging to remedy the situation and publicizing the few cases where perpetrators of torture were sentenced, albeit lightly. However, despite progress in the promulgation of legislation and administrative documents, the Chinese government has been unable or unwilling to make headway in the fight against torture in recent years. Torture is routinely practiced across the country by government officials and individuals acting on behalf of the state. Torture occurs inside detention facilities such as detention centers and Re-education through Labor (RTL) camps, as well as inside illegal and secret facilities such as “black jails.” Torture also occurs outside of these facilities, such as during forced evictions and in the implementation of family planning policies. Perpetrators of torture are almost never held accountable and victims are rarely adequately compensated because there are no independent complaint mechanisms through which to seek recourse.

5. Forced Evictions

Forced evictions have been a pervasive problem for years, as many citizens across all regions and classes have been deprived of their right to adequate housing and subjected to harassment, physical violence, and arbitrary detention in the process. The November 2009 suicide of Tang Fuzhen in protest of her home’s demolition galvanized public opinion to a new degree. The Chinese media provided extensive coverage of the issue, and prominent legal scholars in Beijing submitted to the government a well-publicized call for a review of the administrative regulations governing forced evictions. The clearest indication that the Chinese government is concerned about this issue came earlier this year, when the State Council issued a draft of revised administrative regulations governing forced evictions for public comment on January 29, 2010. However, this draft regulation fails to address the main causes of forced evictions and may prove ineffective at curbing rampant rights abuses associated with the practice.

[1] The six lawyers whose licenses have not been renewed are: Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Yang Huiwen (杨 慧文), Wen Haibo (温海波), Zhang Lihui (张立辉), Li Jingsong (李 劲松), and Tong Chaoping (童朝平).

[2] Mingpao, New Focus on Maintaining Stability: Crackdown on Workers, Farmers and Soldiers, the Three Inner Forces (維穩新重點 打擊工農兵「內三股勢力」), March 13, 2010.

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