WASHINGTON — For years, Western governments, human rights groups and Chinese dissidents have been accusing Beijing of grave violations of human rights and freedoms. The 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square remains the most egregious blot on China's human rights record, but since then the communist government has been dogged by numerous allegations of arbitrary jailing, torture and harassment of dissenters and their families.
In Geneva on Tuesday, the Chinese government faced a United Nations report listing grave abuses and violations of international human rights norms. While China’s response showed some softening of its rhetoric, some observers are not reassured.
Rights activist Ni Yulan was released from prison earlier this month, after serving 2.5 years in a women's prison on charges of fraud and stirring unrest. Ni has been at odds with the Chinese authorities since 2001, when she began protesting the destruction of homes, including her own, to make room for the construction of the Olympic village in Beijing.
"In the last 12 years I have been treated as a criminal, both when I was at home or sitting in prison. At home we were under police surveillance; they surrounded my house and turned it into a prison. We were not allowed to freely come and go, [and] my family was harassed," said Yulan.
Renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was not spared either. After criticizing the government, the designer of Beijing's "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium was arrested in 2011 and held in jail for almost three months without official charges. Chinese authorities said Ai Wewei was investigated for alleged economic crimes.
The long list of China's alleged rights abuses includes repression of minorities, especially in Xingjian and Tibet, and excessive control of the media and the Internet.
The United States has repeatedly warned China to stop the abuses, but human rights groups say this is not enough.
"I think the reality is that for the United States, human rights issues in China remain an issue to be managed, not a problem to be solved. And, not as one as absolutely foundational, fundamental to securing progress on other issues in the bilateral relationship," said Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch.
On Tuesday, China acknowledged shortcomings but insisted that a lot of progress has been made. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed the familiar Chinese line that human rights issues are China’s internal affairs and other nations should not meddle.
"Our wish is that international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and other relevant organs, will objectively and fairly address China's development in the area of human rights. With regards to your question, we consider some issues as domestic matters; we hope that our judicial sovereignty will be respected," said Chunying.
In Hong Kong, City University professor Joseph Cheng said Beijing wants to influence the international human rights agenda.
"China intends to soften external criticism, to defend its basic position and to lobby hard for support among other third world countries, especially those in Africa and Asia. Not only to defend China, but also to support China's membership of the [UN Human Rights] Council in the election to be held in November,” said Cheng.
Cheng also said China now wants to play a more active role in the U.N.'s human rights forum and in shaping the human rights policy of the United Nations.