By William Ide – BEIJING — A top U.S. official says China’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, says talks that were held in China earlier this week fell short of U.S. expectations.
This week’s human rights talks were the 18th time that U.S. and Chinese officials had gathered to discuss a topic that Zeya says is central to Washington and Beijing’s bilateral engagement.
She says that while the dialogue recognized the Chinese people’s remarkable record in lifting hundreds of thousands out of poverty, it did not shy away from the full range of issues where China’s policies and practices have fallen seriously short of international standards.
“We highlighted some of the various ways in which Chinese citizens are speaking out more about their expectations of their government, with respect to corruption, environmental degradation, worker and consumer safety, lack of rule of law, religious freedom and other aspects of government policy,” Zeya said.
The meeting, which took place in the southern city of Kunming, was the first since Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed office in March. Rights groups note that since Mr. Xi has taken office, Chinese authorities have placed more than a dozen activists under detention for calling on government officials to publicly disclose their assets.
The crackdown has occurred despite the fact that Chinese officials have voiced support for cracking down on graft and lavish spending by government agencies. China’s Communist Party says it is in a life or death struggle against corruption.
Other activists have been detained for trying to free petitioners who are being held in so-called “black jails.” The secret detention centers are an extralegal method authorities use to silence dissent.
“We noted that such actions are contrary to China’s international obligations and indeed in most cases China’s own laws and constitution,” Zeya said. “We also conveyed our deep concern about attempts to control or silence or activists by targeting family members and associates of those activists.”
China routinely dismisses such criticism as meddling in its internal affairs. It also insists that those who have been detained are being handled in accordance with its own laws.
When asked how Chinese authorities responded to the mention of specific individual cases, Zeya says officials did provide some information, but overall their responses fell short of what U.S. officials had expected to get out of the meeting.
Some human rights groups have questioned the effectiveness of the dialogues, which have been taking place since the early 1990s. They argue that the discussion have become routine exercises in diplomacy that have achieved few results.
Despite the U.S. government’s assessment of the deteriorating human rights situation in China, Zeya argues that the talks are not just an empty exercise. She says that although Washington and Beijing may differ on human rights, the Chinese public’s expectations for government accountability and change have not been static since the talks began more than a decade ago.
“I personally do not see human rights as an area of disagreement between the American and Chinese people. Like people everywhere the Chinese people deserve to be treated with dignity, to have accountable government and to have their voices heard,” Zeya said. “These discussions then are ultimately about Chinese citizens’ aspirations and how they are navigating their own future.”
During the talks, U.S. officials also expressed their deep concern about China’s attempts to silence dissent and tighten controls over its Tibetan and Uighur minorities. They also urged China to engage in dialogue with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama or his representatives.
Since 2009, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese policies in Tibet and in Tibetan areas in China. They have also called for the return of the Dalai Lama.
China says the Dalai Lama is behind the self-immolations, an accusation the exiled spiritual leader denies.