Press Conference Following U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Thanks. Good afternoon.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week we participated in the 18th round of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue hosted by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kunming. I was very pleased to lead the U.S. delegation which included representatives from the White House, National Security Staff, the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of State.
Ambassador Li Junhua, Director General for International Organizations and Conferences in the Chinese Foreign Ministry led the Chinese delegation which also included representatives from several different government ministries.
This round of the Human Rights Dialogue took place less than two months after President Obama and President Xi met at Sunnylands and affirmed a commitment to frank and results-oriented dialogue.
The timing of the latest round of the HRD also provided both the United States and China an excellent opportunity to discuss in greater depth the full range of human rights concerns raised at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue just three weeks ago.
Throughout the Human Rights Dialogue I made the same point that Vice President Biden made at the S&ED, that “China will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it represents and respects international human rights norms.” I also made clear that the United States is committed to building a cooperative partnership with China; welcomes the rise of a strong, stable and prosperous China; and reaffirmed the centrality of human rights to our bilateral engagement.
As we’ve done many times in the past, we recognized the Chinese people’s remarkable record of economic development over the last three decades, and their lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty, and that work continues.
At the same time we did not shy away from raising the full range of issues where China’s policies and human rights 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.
We also underscored U.S. concern over China’s severe restrictions on religious freedom and the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, both off-line and on-line.
We also expressed deep concern about China’s stepped-up attempts to silence dissent and tighten controls over Tibetans and Uyghurs, emphasizing that policies ostensibly designed to maintain stability are counter-productive when they deny Chinese citizens their universal rights and fundamental freedoms.
We also urged the Chinese government to engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions.
In addition, we specifically called into question the pattern of arrests and extra-legal detentions of public interest lawyers, internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who challenge official policies and actions in China. We noted that such actions are contrary to China’s international obligations and indeed, in most cases, China’s own laws and constitution.
We also conveyed our deep concern about attempts to control or silence activists by targeting family members and associates of those activists, an issue that the Secretary has raised with his counterparts.
And throughout, we emphasized the role that the rule of law and independent judiciary, the free flow of information and a robust civil society can play in helping countries deal with challenges as diverse as environmental degradation, food safety and corruption.
We also raised specific cases such as Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Ni Yulan, Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, Dhondup Wangchen, Hairat Niyaz, and Hada to illustrate our concerns about the broader denial of rights affecting China’s citizens.
In closing, let me take a minute to reiterate what we’ve said in the past. This dialogue is a chance for us to engage on human rights issues and to do so in a more in-depth manner, focusing both on specific issues and specific cases and to lay out opportunities to take action to improve human rights conditions in China and China’s reputation of the world.
It is a forum where we need to engage. And most important, it is only one forum among many where we raise these concerns.
In China, as elsewhere, we strongly believe that change occurs within a society. Our hope is that discussions like the Human Rights Dialogue that we’ve just concluded, and the Legal Experts Dialogue that we agreed to hold in November will create more space for those working on such change.
Although our two governments often differ on this issue, 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. These discussions then are ultimately about Chinese citizens’ aspirations and how they’re navigating their own future.
Let me end with that thought and I’m happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: I’m just curious if you can talk, I just have two questions. One is about containment. How you combat that, and whether there was any attempt or signal by the Chinese officials, whether they said or implied that this dialogue is to take place without intruding on other forums and other interactions. And then how you respond to that kind of attempt on the Chinese side.
The other is if you can talk about the nature of their response when you brought up these cases or the overall kind of problems. Were they willing to respond to questions like where is Gao Zhisheng, and what is the nature of his condition? Are they willing to engage in specifics like that?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Can you just clarify the first part of your question? Did you say containment?
QUESTION: Yes, I just mean in terms of them trying to contain the human rights issue within this annual, this is the one time a year we bring it up. Was there any kind of implication or debate? Did they kind of imply that that was the case? And even if they don’t imply it, how do you combat the kind of danger of having it confined to a once a year event?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I’d respond to the first part of your question by reiterating the point I made in the opening, that it’s really critically important that this is not a once a year exercise. This is an issue that is raised continually in our engagement with the Chinese government at multiple levels, including at the level of the Secretary of State and the President. So I would not agree with either the concept or the contention that this is a once a year exercise.
I think what’s important about this exercise is it’s an opportunity to address these issues very much in depth over a multi-day period, but also to have that conversation beyond the State Department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to include other parts of our respective governments as well.
With respect to your second question in terms of characterizing the response of the Chinese government to our points. I’m not going to be able to go into a play by play of all of our discussions. We certainly did raise a number of specific cases not confined to those that I mentioned at the outset. In some cases we were able to receive some information. I would say overall it [the information provided] fell short of our expectations, but we will simply continue to raise these cases, I think, for the reason that they are illustrative of some of the wider systemic human rights problems that exist in China, particularly with issues associated with freedom of association, freedom of expression, and the right to peaceful dissent.
QUESTION: Two questions. The first question is about how do you evaluate the progress of these talks, if there’s any. The second question is that everyone cares about Snowden and we know that reports said he left the Russian airport. So in your opinion, what do you think of the impact of the Snowden case on the U.S. human rights record? Thank you.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: In terms of evaluating these discussions, I think it’s very important that we were able to have frank, in-depth and very comprehensive discussions covering a wide range of issues. As I mentioned before, we talked about specific cases of concern, freedom of religion, treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, freedom of expression, internet freedom, rule of law and legal reform, issues like the reeducation through labor program and other developments such as the new criminal procedures law in China. We really were able to cover a wide scope of issues.
With respect to the Snowden issue, I would just have to refer you to the latest statements by the White House and the State Department. I’d really like to focus on the discussions that took place this week.
QUESTION: I just would like to know, since you mentioned some of the specific cases, especially Xu Zhiyong and Liu Xia, the response of the Chinese side. Was it brushing down? Was it just brusque, saying no it’s not your business? Or did they say we will try to address these cases?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I would encourage you to direct that question to the Chinese government so they can speak for themselves.
I think from our perspective, they came away from these talks very mindful of the depth of our concern and our wider point that we view, in the case of Liu Xia and others, the targeting of family members of rights activists as extra-legal punishment, and measures inconsistent even with China’s own laws.
So I think the depth of our concern coming away from this is quite clear, and they’re mindful of that.
QUESTION: Thank you. As I’m sure you’re aware, every year the Chinese government issues its own human rights report about the United States. Obviously you bring up the U.S. concern about what’s going on in China. Do the Chinese bring up concerns that they have about what’s going on in the United States? And if they do, how do you respond to this?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I appreciate your question. We are well aware of the human rights report that China has prepared on the United States. We accept the concept that countries can and should be able to speak out about human rights concerns in other countries and most importantly, adherence to universal norms of human rights. So I think that’s an important concept that we support.
The Chinese side did raise some concerns on the human rights situation in the U.S. and I think we were very open to responding. And ultimately, I’d like to think that we’re an open book when it comes to human rights.
When you look at the discourse in the United States, I think the role of the media, the role of civil society, the importance of having independent oversight and free discussion is a critically important factor in holding governments accountable. But I would say that the main focus of the discussion was certainly on human rights challenges here in China.
QUESTION: I’m often reminded of the issue of North Korea and the U.S. government. We don’t want to talk just for the sake of talking. Well, what about human rights? Is there an interest on either side in establishing benchmarks to show that progress is being made on this front? And are you concerned about just the problem of talking for talks’ sake?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I would respond to this, we’re certainly not looking for a dialogue just for the sake of dialogue. I think the issues that we’ve raised are intended to encourage some concrete progress, some advancement of respect for universal rights within China.
These are difficult issues and they’re ones where we’re going to continue to engage, even where we don’t see that progress immediately taking place.
I think what we heard from our regular engagement with Chinese citizens, with rights activists, with the rights community outside China is that it’s a vital part of American diplomacy that we continue to raise such concerns. But the fact that they’re difficult is not a reason I think to abandon engagement.
But as I said earlier, this is not a once a year exercise. This is really an essential part of our steady engagement with China bilaterally.
QUESTION: Is there an interest in establishing benchmarks, though?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: With respect to benchmarks, I think our emphasis is on trying to achieve a more results-oriented approach. But I wouldn’t frame that in terms of benchmarks.
QUESTION: When Mr. Posner was here a couple of years ago he expressed concern that the human rights situation in China was actually deteriorating. You’re here at a time when we’ve obviously seen the detention of quite a lot of lawyers and also people who have been advocating the declaration of official assets. Are you concerned that the situation is actually deteriorating?
Secondly, you mentioned the use of family members and connections. Do you see that as a new development?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: To answer the first part of your question, regrettably, yes. I think we’ve continued to see a deterioration in the overall human rights situation in China. I think the specific issue that you mentioned, targeting of family members, is one reason for that assessment. In the case of the family of Liu Xiaobo, the case of the family of Chen Guangcheng, and other instances. This is a worrisome trend and one which we have raised at senior levels with the Chinese government.
I think also looking at policies towards ethnic and religious minorities, certainly the situation in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Uighur Autonomous Region, particularly with respect to repressive measures related to religious practice. We also would assess, these factors support the same overall assessment.
QUESTION: Overall what result do you think this dialogue has reached in all these years? It seems that the situation is getting worse and worse.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: I think it’s important to look maybe more towards the expectations of the Chinese people and where the public discourse is in terms of accountability for government. I don’t think it’s necessarily been a static situation in China over the past 18 years. Ultimately the most important human rights dialogue is between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. But for our part, the U.S. government, I think we want to, adhering to universal standards of human rights, encourage progress in key areas which we think ultimately will help China become the innovative society that it aspires to be.
QUESTION: You said that when you raised specific cases, you said that in some cases we were able to receive some information. Overall, it fell short of our expectations. What were your expectations?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Again, I’m not going to be able to get into a play by play of every issue that was discussed. I think with respect to longstanding cases there’s hope for greater clarity and information on the health and whereabouts of specific individuals, but these are cases that we’ll continue to raise. We’re not alone I think in expressing such concerns. And we will continue to have it as part of our engagement.
QUESTION: Did the Chinese side accept a written list of cases of concern for this dialogue? Also did the Chinese side provide written responses to the list that was handed over at the last dialogue?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: As we have in previous years, we did convey a list to the Chinese government. In terms of written responses, this was an interactive discussion, not one in which papers were passed back and forth.
QUESTION: So no response to last year’s list?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: It was a topic that was discussed orally, but we were not expecting a written response.
QUESTION: I wonder, would you like to say a few words about Mr. Chen Guangcheng, who is now living in the United States? Do you think he is happy now or enjoying the life there?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Well, I appreciate your raising his case. I can certainly tell you that we raised our concerns with respect to harassment and measures taken against his family members who remain in China. With respect to his own personal feelings, I think you’d have to take the question to him. But I think it’s illustrative of the wider problem that we’ve noted with harassment and targeting of family members, the rights activists both inside and outside China.
QUESTION: Can you give us some detail what they told you about Xu Zhiyong, is he going to be formally accused of something?
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Again, in that case I’d have to refer you, ask you to take the question to the Chinese government.
QUESTION: They will say he’s a criminal. In his case, it’s --
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: We made clear our concerns with respect to the importance of allowing citizens to express their concerns regarding the direction of government policies peacefully; after he was first detained July 16th and the State Department issued a statement of concern. I think we’re not alone in drawing attention to this case, but ultimately I think with your question you have to ask the Chinese government for their response.
QUESTION: I know you raised the issue of dialogue with the Dalai Lama. There were some reports earlier this year that maybe China was loosening controls on using images of the Dalai Lama, discussion of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. I’m wondering if you in your discussions got a sense of whether that’s really happening or not.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: Can you just repeat the last point of the question?
QUESTION: I was curious if in your discussions with the Chinese side about the Dalai Lama, did you get a sense of whether there’s been a change in policy within Tibet itself as it pertains to the Dalai Lama, discussing him, using his image, that sort of thing.
ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY ZEYA: We did discuss our concerns in depth with respect to controls in place in Tibet. I would say we did not come away with an impression of a shift in policy.
Thank you to everybody for coming out.