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Obama Administration Prepares for China Human Rights Dialogue

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley (file photo)

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley (file photo)

U.S. and Chinese officials convene in Washington later this week for a new round of what has been a sporadic bilateral human rights dialogue. Some U.S. human rights advocates are skeptical about the dialogue process.

The United States and China are resuming the human rights dialogue for the first time in two years, with the State Department meetings seen as another sign relations are stabilizing after months of tensions.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner, will lead the U.S team in meetings Thursday and Friday. China's delegation will be headed by Foreign Affairs Ministry Director-General for International Organizations, Chen Xu.

The meeting was first scheduled for February but was postponed amid Chinese anger over new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama's meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

The last such dialogue was in May 2008. Before that, discussions had not taken place since 2002.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley says the meetings are not about lecturing China on rights issues, but to help it understand why those issues are of importance to Washington.

Crowley says the meeting on human rights issues will be held separately. But he added that does not mean that human rights will not be part of the U.S. agenda during a two-day strategic and economic dialogue that begins in Beijing on May 23.

"Our relationship with China is broad, it's deep," said P.J. Crowley. "It covers a number of areas. Human rights is a central element to that. So as part of the strategic dialogue, human rights is a dimension of that. It's part of the economic dialogue. Issues that touch on human rights whether its Internet freedom, access to information, intellectual property rights - these are all fundamental to this discussion."

U.S. rights groups say any discussion of the issue with China is welcome given what the State Department's own annual human rights report said in March was a poor Chinese record that in some cases worsened last year.

But Scott Flipse, Director of East Asia Policy and Programs at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, says working level meetings on human rights are not worthwhile, if they only produce agreements to continue talking.

Flipse says U.S. concerns on China human rights issues would be more effectively raised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Beijing strategic dialogue.

"Our position is that we think that religious freedom issues need to be taken up at the strategic and economic dialogue, and there needs to be a consistent government-wide human rights strategy that is created, so that the Chinese do not get the message that our interest in human rights are somehow not connected to all of our other interests," said Scott Flipse.

The Congressionally chartered USCIRF issued a report this month saying China continues to engage in "systematic and egregious" violations of freedom of religion or belief, with a "marked deterioration" of conditions in Tibetan Buddhist and Muslim Uighur areas.

It recommended U.S. sanctions targeting Chinese provincial leaders where rights violations are most severe.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, calls the bilateral rights dialogues "fairly empty exercises" because they lack benchmarks for progress and a meaningful connection with the broader U.S.-China relationship.

Nevertheless, Richardson says the Beijing government's evident dislike for the dialogues shows they are not entirely without value.

"One of main reasons to go head with the human rights dialogue is that the Chinese government doesn't like it," said Sophie Richardson. "They don't like having to sit through this thing once or twice a year. And while that doesn't necessarily turn it into a constructive, meaningful discussion, I think that alone is reason enough to try to continue to have the discussion."

T. Kumar, international advocacy director for Amnesty International-USA, says the bilateral rights dialogues are "better than nothing", but that the issue should also be part of the upcoming ministerial talks.

"We urge the Obama administration to include as an equal partner with other interests that they are going to discuss in this strategic dialogue," said Kumar. "That's the most important and comprehensive way of addressing human rights in China. Separating human rights from that main engagement will send the wrong signal. Number two: the Chinese will also not take this seriously."

The Amnesty official says China's rights record is static in most areas and getting worse in others, especially for Uighurs in western Xinjiang province and for human rights lawyers.

The sole bright spot he cited was China's 2007 decision to reinstate a Supreme Court review of all death penalty cases, a step he says may have slowed the world-leading pace of executions in China.

China has raised complaints about the U.S. human rights performance at past dialogues.

After the March release of the State Department's human rights report, China accused the U.S. government of turning a blind eye to "rampant" abuses, citing violent crime, police brutality, and government spying on Americans in the name of fighting terrorism.