BEIJING — With Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials in the midst of two days of meetings with their Chinese counterparts, human rights activists are urging them to elevate a topic that President Xi Jinping would rather dodge: his government’s increasingly harsh treatment of critics and civic activists.
Since Xi assumed his post last year, China has stepped up detentions and imprisonments of prominent lawyers, religious leaders, advocates for ethnic groups and those seeking to remember the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square last month.
On Wednesday, a leading Tibetan writer, Tsering Woeser, said she’d been put under house arrest after being invited to visit the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, presumably to join a function with Kerry.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said it was difficult to know whether the Chinese president was directing such police actions or was delegating decisions to hard-liners. Regardless, she said, “the scope and scale of detentions and arrests, and the kind of behavior that is now considered problematic, bodes very badly for Xi’s tenure. . . . There used to be more clarity on where the red lines were drawn.”
Kerry and other top U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, are in Beijing for an annual get-together with the Chinese hierarchy known as the Strategic Economic Dialogue. The gathering results in face-to-face meetings with officials from both countries, including those with expertise in energy, public health, environment, banking, trade, economic development, national security and international relations.
In advance of the dialogue, Beijing and the White House have tried to rebut the conventional criticism of their strained relationship: that China sees the United States as a declining power and that the Obama administration, for its part, is intent on “containing” China’s rise.
In an opening speech Wednesday, Xi said the two countries had common interests that outweighed their differences, including the need to work together on a trade agreement, counterterrorism, climate change and other issues of mutual concern. “The foundation of Sino-U.S. friendship lies in the people, and our hope in youth,” Xi was quoted as saying by China’s state-run media.
Kerry said Wednesday, “We are convinced that the United States and China do not have to be rivals, but can be partners and find things to cooperate on that are important to the security of the region.”
Despite such comments, the U.S.-China relationship remains tense, stoked by China’s territorial ambitions in the East and South China seas and by the White House’s decision to indict Chinese military officials on charges of hacking U.S. corporate secrets.
China has seized on the indictments to accuse the United States of cyber-hypocrisy, propaganda aided this week by claims that Washington had hired a German intelligence employee to spy on the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Visiting Beijing on Monday, Merkel was asked about accusations that the U.S. had lured a German citizen to spy against his own country. “If the allegations are true, it would be a clear contradiction as to what I consider to be trusting cooperation between agencies and partners, ” she said at a Beijing news conference, presumably to the delight of her Chinese hosts.
Given the state of relations between the United States and China, some diplomats see little to be gained by pressing issues of human rights. Richardson disagrees, saying a strong message could be sent at these meetings if individual U.S. agencies were to press human rights concerns that related to their own particular priorities.
U.S. public health agencies, she said, have a vested interest in ensuring that outbreaks of bird flu or other infectious diseases in China are quickly and fully disclosed to the public. “Part of the reason that there are health scares in China is because the Chinese press is not allowed to report on them,” she said.
U.S. security agencies, she said, could enter into a dialogue with their counterparts about how to counter terrorist cells in western China’s Xinjiang region, without cracking down so indiscriminately that they draw new converts to radical Islamism.
“This is a chance for the United States to raise the issue of human rights across several levels,” Richardson said in a telephone interview. “We urge agencies that normally don’t raise these issues to raise them.”
Human rights groups have kept a running tally of China’s recent actions against dissidents. As of June 3, Amnesty International had reported that some 66 Chinese had been detained or arrested as part of a government campaign to suppress any memory of China’s assault on protesters in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.
Earlier this year, a Chinese court sentenced Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and leader of the New Citizens Movement, to four years in prison after he campaigned for greater disclosure of the wealth of Communist Party leaders.
This month, a court in Henan province sentenced a Christian pastor, Zhang Shaojie, to an even harsher sentence _ 12 years _ for alleged fraud and “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order.” Zhang had been active in pushing the government to resolve disputes involving his parishioners, many of whom are desperately poor.
China has also come under fire for its policies in Hong Kong, long a bastion of relatively free trade in China. Pro-democracy activists say Beijing is attempting to rig which candidates will be on the ballot this year for Hong Kong’s first direct election for chief executive. In an issue brief this week, the Heritage Foundation urged the United States to exert pressure, saying it could “formally condemn Chinese behavior and highlight the prospects that Beijing intends to renege on its promises to Hong Kong.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said he couldn’t comment on reports that Woeser, the Tibetan writer and activist, had been invited to the embassy and was later put under house arrest.
Woeser, on her Facebook page, said she’d returned from Inner Mongolia to Beijing at 6 p.m. Tuesday. An hour later, police arrived and told her not leave her house.
“I asked for the reason and they said that it was confidential,” she wrote on her Facebook page, in an English translation she attributed to U.S. scholar Elliot Sperling. “But I know that it’s because the day before yesterday an American Embassy official had called me on my mobile phone and invited me this evening to the embassy residence.”
Just a few days earlier, Sperling, a professor of central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, was denied entry to Beijing after previously receiving a Chinese visa in the United States. Sperling said he thought he was turned back because of his association with a Uighur scholar from Xinjiang, Ilham Tohti, who’d been arrested and charged by China’s government with “separatism.”
Richardson said China was hurting its own interests by arresting and harassing individuals such as Tohti and Woeser, who she said sought to ease tensions between China’s ethnic groups and the Han majority.
“These are rare public intellectuals who, at enormous risks to themselves and their families, are trying hard to bridge divides in China,” she said.