News / Asia

Human Rights Activist Describes White House Meeting on China

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (file photo)
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (file photo)

The head of a prominent human rights organization has spoken about a meeting he and three other rights activists had with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, urging the White House to focus on human rights during next week's visit by China's Vice President Xi Jinping.  

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, called the roughly 45 minute meeting with Biden a "candid and productive exchange."

The White House announced the Wednesday meeting with Roth and three other activists in a statement released on Thursday.  It said Biden discussed "the deterioration of China’s human rights situation, prospects for reform, and recommendations for U.S. policy.”

In addition to Roth, the group included Xiaorong Li of the group Human Rights in China, Benjamin Liebman, a Columbia University expert on China’s legal system, and Jianying Zha, an expert on Chinese media and popular culture.

Roth said they asked Biden to ensure that human rights be given a "central public place" in conversations with China's vice president, something, he said, Biden indicated he was determined to do.

"He really volunteered that he felt the U.S.-China relationship has to be based on the truth, that the truth is that HR [human rights] are universal values; they are not [only] Western [values], they are actually going to be central to China's success in the future," said Roth.

Roth's summary agreed with the official White House account of the meeting, which said Biden discussed how "greater openness and protection of universal rights is the best way to promote innovation, prosperity, and stability in all countries, including China."

Roth said the group did not get a White House commitment on a request Human Rights Watch made in a letter to President Barack Obama last month, that he invite former Chinese political prisoners and government critics to the White House.

The Human Rights Watch official said the discussion with Biden did not get into specific circumstances of political prisoners in China, noting that the White House is fully aware of these cases.

Roth pointed to a broader objective of focusing on "systematic" human rights violations in China.

"While obviously we all want to see particular political prisoners freed, no one is satisfied by that kind of tokenism," he said. "There are systematic problems in China today with their human rights record.  And those are the key things to address.  I don't think we should leave the impression that China can buy off criticism by releasing a prisoner here or there when the end result is usually that they just arrest someone else."

In a discussion in Washington on Thursday sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, experts echoed Roth, saying that they do not expect specific human rights cases to come up during Xi Jinping's White House talks.

Michael Green, who served as Asia Director for the National Security Council during the administration of former President George W. Bush, says it remains to be seen how Xi Jinping might respond to pressure on human rights during next week's meetings.

"It will be interesting to find out, if we can, if in the meetings with the president and the vice president, he [ Xi] actually contests the issue and says, 'Oh yeah, well you have human rights [issues].'  I could see him pushing back more privately, and maybe even publicly, because he has done it before," said Green.

Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch said he and other activists urged Vice President Biden to work to ensure that the United States adopts a "whole government approach" to human rights in China.

Roth said they stressed that the audience for an intensified public and private approach is not just Vice President Xi, but the Chinese people - including reformers who would feel abandoned if such discussion does not take place.   

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