By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
BEIJING, May 27 -- Renewing the U.S.-China human rights dialogue after a six-year cutoff, a senior U.S. official urged the Chinese government Tuesday to improve its rights record as a way to sweeten the atmosphere for the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing.
David J. Kramer, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said resumption of the formal government-to-government dialogue, which was suspended in 2002, should be seen as a first step in that direction. Another round of talks has been scheduled before the end of the year, he said at a news conference.
"We think that quite a bit has changed in the last six years," Kramer said, adding: "We have renewed the dialogue now because we think there may be a basis for making more progress."
At the same time, he acknowledged that the State Department's own annual human rights assessment rates China's record as "poor." Many observers have said the human rights situation here, particularly the issue of free speech by dissidents, has declined markedly in recent months as part of a security tightening in the lead-up to the Beijing Games in August. In addition, the Chinese government has come under heavy criticism abroad for its crackdown in Tibet following the eruption of anti-Chinese rioting in March.
Although diplomatic contacts on human rights have continued, the Bush administration stepped away from the formal dialogue in 2002 because it believed the talks were leading nowhere, Kramer recalled. Since last year, however, U.S. officials have sought to get the regular consultations started again as part of an ever-broadening range of contacts between Beijing and Washington. After months of resisting, the Chinese government agreed during a visit to Beijing in February by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The agreement to return to formal talks was widely seen as a gesture designed to appeal to public opinion abroad as China prepared to host the Olympics. Kramer declined to say whether he shared this interpretation. But he suggested the Olympic Games, as a showcase for China's progress, would be a good opportunity to show progress on human rights as well. President Bush, he noted, will be among those in attendance.
Kramer said he reviewed U.S. concerns on a number of human rights questions during a meeting Monday with a Chinese delegation led by Wu Hailong, the Foreign Ministry's director-general for international organizations and conferences. These included imprisonment of dissidents and journalists, limits on religious activities, and suppression of nationalist activists in Tibet and Xinjiang, he said.
In particular, he said, U.S. officials urged China to make permanent a temporary lifting of regulations that had required foreign correspondents to seek authorization from local authorities before working outside Beijing. The rules were suspended beginning Jan. 1 until after the Olympics in line with China's pledges to the International Olympic Committee.
Kramer said he expressed satisfaction at the recent Chinese decision to meet with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, and he predicted that a second round of talks would be held soon.
At the same time, he said, U.S. officials asked their Chinese counterparts about reports that some of the dissidents the Americans wanted to meet were put under house arrest to prevent them from making contact.
Against that background, Kramer said he approached the renewed human rights dialogue with "no illusions," but added that the initial attitude from his interlocutors was encouraging.
"There's an opportunity, here, we think," he said.