BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China’s increasingly tough line against dissent suggests it will be in no mood to bend to U.S. demands to soften its approach when the two begin talks on human rights on Wednesday.
Analysts said the gulf between the two sides looks especially deep ahead of this year’s annual U.S.-China human rights dialogue, with Beijing nervous of social unrest and Washington sounding more vocal in its criticism.
“This is the first time that the human rights dialogue will be held in an environment this bad,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based advocacy group.
Washington came out jabbing before the two-day talks began, saying it would use them to press Beijing over a “recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detention, and arrests and convictions” of dissidents and rights advocates.
But Beijing appears to see scant reason to heed such calls, confident that its economic growth and swelling domestic security forces can counter external and domestic demands to release political detainees and allow more free speech.
“Frankly, being the village preacher — despite the fact that that’s our nature and that’s who we are (as Americans) — is not a particularly effective way to change policy or change policy behavior in Beijing,” said Charles Freeman, an expert on China at theCenter for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C.
China’s leaders are increasingly unyielding in the face of Western pressure but also wary about what they see as foreign-inspired dissent and subversion.
That alarm only grew after overseas Chinese websites in February spread calls for protests across China inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” of anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
A Party leadership succession in late 2012 is also encouraging China to keep a hard grip on dissent.
China has jailed, detained or placed in secretive informal custody dozens of dissidents, human rights lawyers and protesters it fears will challenge Communist Party rule
They include the prominent artist-activist Ai Weiwei, who faces a police investigation on suspected economic crimes that his family has called an unfounded excuse for locking him up.
Chinese security forces have also clamped down on a Tibetan area of southwest China, where Buddhist monks have been taken away for mandatory “re-education.”
However, scrutiny and criticism from Washington and other capitals could constrain Beijing and give more room for domestic groups and advocates to campaign, said Mao Yushi, a liberal economist in Beijing who advocates democratic reform.
“Especially in a political environment like China’s, forces from inside the country calling for human rights meet with various forms of suppression,” Mao told Reuters.
“Foreign criticism is extremely important for the progress of human rights in China. So these two forces must combine to push forward China’s human rights situation.”
“There is going to be a strong message delivered in private,” a U.S. official said of the rights talks, that will be led on the U.S. side by Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration had also taken a firm public stance toward Chinese rights issues.
“We have other important economic and political interests that are on the table, there’s no doubt. But these issues are making our conversation more difficult,” Posner told reporters earlier this month.
Beijing says many of those criticisms are meddling and points to the United States’ own human rights controversies such as the high rates of incarceration.
Even in private discussions, Chinese diplomats have become more prickly about lobbying over human rights, said one Western diplomat in Beijing.
“It used to be that raising these issues would get you a lecture about how China has made huge improvements and needs to make more progress,” said the diplomat.
“But now the lecture is much more about, ‘Who are you to criticize me? What right have you to criticize China?’”
(Additional reporting by Maxim Duncan in BEIJING, editing by Jonathan Thatcher)
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