Senior U.S. and Chinese officials Friday completed a two-day dialogue on human rights that the State Department described as candid, constructive and respectful. The sides agreed to hold a follow-on meeting next year in Beijing.
The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has been critical of China's human rights record and U.S. officials acknowledge disagreements in the Washington meetings.
But they are expressing satisfaction that what has been a sporadic official dialogue on the issue will continue in Beijing next year, and hoping that human rights becomes a routine issue in various bilateral fora.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner briefed reporters after the close of the meeting, only the third such dialogue since 2002.
Posner said the U.S. side raised the individual cases of a large number of Chinese dissident figures.
But under questioning, he would name only two - writer and political activist Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last December on subversion charges, and Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who had been missing for more than a year before resurfacing in late March.
China has chafed at U.S. criticism on such cases, calling it interference in the country's judicial sovereignty. But Posner said the overall dialogue was civil. "People weren't giving long recitations, without a back and forth. We really had discussion about both issues where we can agree and where we can move forward in a cooperative way. But we also had a real dialogue, a constructive dialogue, respectful in tone but very direct about things where we don't agree," he said.
Posner said the U.S. team did not lecture the Chinese side and that the meetings also dealt with perceived U.S. rights shortcomings, some raised by China and others by U.S. officials themselves. "We did plenty of that. We had experts from the U.S. side for example yesterday talking about treatment of Muslim Americans in an immigration context. We had discussion of racial discrimination. We had a back and forth about how each of our societies are dealing with those sorts of questions," he said.
The human rights dialogue comes less than two weeks before a broader ministerial-level U.S. China economic and strategic dialogue in Beijing to be attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Assistant Secretary Posner said human rights will also be taken up at those discussions, which he said he will attend along with Clinton, and possibly meet with Chinese critics of government policy.
The Chinese delegation in Washington, headed by senior Foreign Ministry official Chen Xu, did not meet reporters though a Chinese embassy spokesman said Beijing considers the dialogue a useful way to increase mutual understanding in an important area.
No date was given for the 2011 rights dialogue in Beijing.
This year's forum was originally set for February but postponed amid Chinese anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama's meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Posner said Tibet and the rights situation in China's heavily Muslim Xinjiang region were raised, but gave no details.