China set to resume human rights dialogue

Move to revive discussions with U.S. seen as bid to improve country's image ahead of Summer Olympics

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service

China declared Tuesday that it is willing to resume a long-stalled human rights dialogue with the United States, apparently seeking to improve its image before this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made the announcement at the close of talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who passed through Beijing after attending the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Monday.

Yang, a former ambassador to Washington, appeared to direct his announcement to U.S. reporters accompanying Rice.

"We are willing to resume the human rights dialogue," he said, reading from notes. "The Chinese people enjoy the full extent of human rights and religious freedom. We are willing to have exchanges and interactions with the United States and other countries on human rights on a basis of mutual respect, equality and noninterference in internal affairs."

Rice, in a later briefing, welcomed the Chinese gesture and said U.S. diplomats would seek to pin down a date for restarting the dialogue as soon as possible. "That is something we've been trying to do for some time," she added.

China suspended participation in the regular U.S.-China human rights dialogue in 2004 after the United States sponsored a resolution at the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission urging condemnation of China's record. Chinese officials construed that move as interference in their country's affairs and a display of hostility that made further formal dialogue impossible.

President Hu Jintao indicated to President Bush during a visit to Washington two years later that he was willing in principle to resume the dialogue, according to U.S. reports. But in practice, Chinese officials evaded U.S. attempts to get the discussions started again. According to diplomatic sources, prospects for a resumption seemed to brighten last year but dimmed again after Washington received the Dalai Lama warmly in October.

Even without the formal dialogue, U.S. officials have made human rights a routine topic in discussions with their Chinese counterparts. Rice said she brought up the subject again Tuesday, reminding Yang that human rights are "near and dear" to the United States and citing three cases of particular interest to the Bush administration.

Yang's declaration appeared designed as a response to Western human rights groups that are increasingly accusing China of being unfit to host the Olympics because of rights abuses. In particular, the groups have condemned China's imprisonment of dissidents who use the Internet to criticize the government. A half-dozen such critics have been tried in recent months.

In addition, some human rights activists and American celebrities have mounted a campaign against China as host of the Games because of Darfur. In particular, they have urged the Chinese government to put more pressure on Sudan to allow U.N. and African Union peacekeeping troops to deploy in the conflict-torn region. China has extensive commercial ties to the Sudanese government, including arms sales, the purchase of Sudanese oil and several infrastructure projects.

Chinese officials have dismissed criticism of their rights record, saying sports should not be mixed with politics. Bush said he would also follow that line during a planned visit here to attend the Olympics opening ceremony. "The president has been very clear that this is a sporting event," Rice reminded reporters.

Nevertheless, Communist Party leaders have tried to avoid controversies related to the Games, viewing the event as an international endorsement of their stewardship of the country over the past three decades. They are particularly eager to avoid demonstrations that could mar televised ceremonies, including protests reportedly planned for this spring at stopover points of the Olympic torch relay.

The concern is that human rights complaints could dampen the congratulatory spirit the party seeks to foster during the Games. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, for instance, created an international publicity splash two weeks ago when he withdrew as artistic adviser to the Aug. 8 opening ceremony, citing China's failure to do more to end the crisis in Darfur.

Soon after Spielberg's announcement, Xi Jinping, a new star in the party hierarchy and Hu's probable successor, was put in charge of Olympic preparations, which a Chinese official interpreted as a sign of concern by the party's top leaders. Since Xi's appointment, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has accelerated the rhythm of news conferences and journalists' tours of showy Olympic installations to counter the negative publicity.

Copyright © 2008 Washington Post

Published in:
Washington Post – article/2008/02/26/AR2008022600903.html?hpid=topnews