Let's Talk

Monday, March 10, 2008

OVER THE past few years, China -- budding superpower that it is -- has repeatedly objected to international interventions in its domestic affairs. This complaint contributed to the suspension of official human rights dialogues with the United States five years ago. Last month Beijing announced that it is willing to resume those talks, presumably because of growing international criticism of its pre-Olympics crackdown on dissent and of its relationships with Sudan and Burma. For the Bush administration, the renewed dialogue could present a valuable opportunity to promote human rights in China -- if several conditions are met.

Many human rights advocates fear that Beijing will use the talks to appear responsive to human rights concerns while doing nothing to improve conditions. The United States needs to affirm that the talks will be based on results, not on lip service, and that both sides need to act in good faith.

Also, talks must take place before this summer's Olympics, while the international community has the most leverage. Diplomats should emphasize that improving human rights conditions is in China's best interest and is compatible with, and necessary for sustaining, the rule of law. To that end, U.S. officials should push for structural reforms, greater transparency in the legal process and fidelity to the civil rights already enshrined by China's constitution -- not to mention the pledges China made in order to be granted the Olympics.

Constructive criticisms should also be allowed to flow both ways; if Chinese officials want to criticize treatment of Guantanamo detainees or other controversial U.S. human rights issues, U.S. officials should hear them out so long as doing so convinces China that the meetings are for dialogue and not for lectures.

Most important, the United States should insist upon providing lists of political prisoners. In discussions dating to the early 1990s, U.S. officials and nongovernmental organizations gave Beijing such lists and requested responses on the prisoners' status. Over time it became clear that those who were on the lists were treated much better and were three times more likely to be released early than those who hadn't yet caught foreign attention. After some of those listed prisoners -- such as Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer -- publicly criticized China upon their release, China began refusing to accept the lists, and it may be reluctant to receive them again. Still, the United States should insist, and it should coordinate with other countries participating in bilateral human rights talks with China so that all ask about the same prisoners and the same reforms. This will clarify to China what it needs to do to improve its human rights image in the world and what it needs to do to protect the rights of its own people.

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