BEIJING — When 11 embassies signed on to a joint letter criticizing China over “credible claims” that lawyers and human rights activists have been tortured while in detention, there were two notable abstentions.
One was the 28-nation European Union, although some E.U. members signed on to the letter. The other was the United States.
Several joint letters have been sent by diplomatic missions in Beijing in the past year or so expressing concern over a crackdown on human rights, with a variety of nations signing on to all or some of the letters. But this marked the first time that the United States declined to sign on the dotted line.
When Canada’s Globe and Mail broke the story this week, questions were soon raised. Was this a sign that the U.S. government was backtracking on its commitment to human rights under President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?
No, said the embassy. Tillerson, it pointed out, stood alongside China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in Beijing on Saturday and said he had made clear in private discussions with his counterpart “that the United States will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.”
Some sources said the decision not to sign the letter may have been made within the State Department’s bureaucracy, rather than by Tillerson or any of his team. That may be a function of the chaotic nature of the transition since Trump took over — with several senior positions still unfilled — and the lack of a clear strategy on how to deal with China, rather than a sign of a fundamental shift in stance.
“I tend to think this is more to do with the fact that U.S. policy is so disorganized right now,” said Paul Haenle, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and stayed on into the Obama administration. “Transitions are always really disorganized and confused, but this one is at a level I have never seen before.”
But other experts said the decision was most likely made at a senior level.
"We have consistently supported such joint initiatives in the past, particularly when others have taken the lead, because they show China that many countries, not just the U.S., disapprove of its conduct," said Tom Malinowksi, who served Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from 2014 to 2017. "I can’t recall any time in the past when we have declined to join our allies in making such a statement. And I would be extremely surprised if a decision to break so sharply with past practice had been made at any level below the Secretary of State."
With senior vacancies across the State Department, including for Tillerson’s deputy, no ambassador in place in Beijing, and a strong sense that the entire organization is being sidelined in foreign policy formulation, some diplomats said they weren’t surprised that the United States declined to sign on to the letter this time around.
But others expressed disappointment, especially given that the letter was negotiated by the various embassies over four to five weeks.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing insists that its stance has not changed.
“As part of our regular discussions with the Chinese, we raise our serious concerns over China’s human rights record, including raising individual cases of people in China who have been harassed, detained without trial and allegedly tortured,” embassy spokeswoman Mary Beth Polley said. “As Secretary Tillerson has stated, the American people’s commitment to human rights and championing of people the world over is embedded in all we do.”
The State Department’s Human Rights Report, released this month, accused China of a slew of human rights abuses, including:
“arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, executions without due process, illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as ‘black jails,’ torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and detention and harassment of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others whose actions the authorities deemed unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, the fact that Tillerson did not hold a news briefing to launch that report, as predecessors in his job have done, also left activists and politicians wondering whether the United States might be wavering.
“For 1st time in a long time @StateDept #humanrights report will not be presented by Secretary of State,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I hope they reconsider.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, noted that the United States has joined diplomatic efforts to call out China in the past, including a joint statement criticizing Beijing at the United Nations' Human Rights Council last year.
“Last March, we watched the U.S. take the lead on a badly needed and unprecedented joint statement at the Human Rights Council,” she said. “This March it appears the U.S. is declining that kind of cooperation on an issue that it has already taken a strong position on.”
The letter, dated Feb. 27, was addressed to China’s minister of public security, Guo Shengkun, and signed by ambassadors and chargés d’affaires from Australia, Canada, Japan and Switzerland, along with seven E.U. members: Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany and Sweden.
Diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said Hungary had prevented the E.U. from signing as a bloc and threatened to do so in all such future cases. The Hungarian Embassy in Beijing declined to offer a comment.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is an enthusiastic supporter of Trump and has warned European leaders not to lecture China over human rights. China is a major investor in Hungary, with Budapest styling itself as China’s gateway to Europe.
The E.U. delegation in Beijing pointed out that it had already made a separate statement in January about the “serious mistreatment of detained human rights lawyers Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang and Xie Yang.” It added that, if verified, “this mistreatment would amount to torture,” and asked for an investigation.
Yet it is also notable that 20 other E.U. nations besides Hungary also declined to sign the February letter on an individual basis.
In the letter, the diplomatic missions expressed “growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders.”
“In the cases of Xie Yang, Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, Wu Gan and Li Chunfu credible claims of torture have been brought to our attention,” it said.
“Detaining people without any contact with the outside world for long periods of time is contrary to China's international human rights obligations. In this context, we call on China to comply with its obligations under international human rights law, in particular the Convention Against Torture.”
The letter asked the Chinese government to “put in place necessary mechanisms to ensure that neither torture nor any other form of ill-treatment takes place in any form of detention” and inform the missions of the results of any investigation into the particular cases.
China’s Foreign Ministry issued an angry rebuttal.
“China is always opposed to the efforts of any country to disrupt the normal case handling by Chinese judicial authorities at the excuse of human rights,” Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
“You mentioned this expression of opinions by 11 missions in China,” Hua said, in response to a question from the Globe. “I believe this in itself is violating the spirit of rule of law.”
“All sovereign states enjoy the independence of judicial affairs, and no country has the right to interfere with the independence of their judicial affairs,” she added. “China has repeatedly expressed that China is a country under the rule of law and everyone stands equal in front of the law, and no one can rise beyond the law.”