Annual human rights talks between the United States and China have produced few visible results, partly because of a difference in how each nation views civil liberties, analysts say.
The yearly closed-door meetings, which took place this week in Washington, ended much the same way they have the past few years, with Washington accusing Beijing of overseeing a deterioration of human rights and Beijing dismissing the criticism as interference.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said while Beijing has accomplished “extraordinary” economic development during the past three decades, it has also overlooked political reforms.
“During this period, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty, and this is a remarkable achievement,” said Posner. “At the same time, we see that political reforms have not kept pace with economic advances.”
For its part, the Chinese delegation released a statement calling on the U.S. to “take an unbiased look” at its human rights conditions. It also pointed to Beijing’s recent efforts to improve people’s livelihoods by various legal reforms and social security programs.
Hong Kong-based independent rights analyst Joshua Rosenzweig says those kinds of comments reflect a different understanding about what constitutes human rights.
“The Chinese side, when it comes to human rights, likes to talk about its achievements in the area of economic and social rights, how it’s brought people in China up from poverty,” said Rosenzweig. “The U.S. side tends to look at how China lags behind in terms of political development in things like freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”
Rosenzweig says this difference means both sides often talk past each other at the annual talks, instead of having meaningful dialogue, which results in very little measurable progress.
Wednesday, Posner defended the value of the annual human rights dialogue, saying it should be viewed as part of a larger strategy of U.S.-China relations. He also said it provides an opportunity to address specific cases of human rights abuses by China.
“I think over time we’re responding to a very heartfelt desire by people living in China that these issues – that their cases, their issues, not be forgotten,” said Posner.
David Kelly, the head of research at Beijing-based China Policy, says China is also satisfied with the human rights dialogue.
“These meetings are useful events for China to show that it is part of the world community and can talk in a mature way,” said Kelly. “And they use these occasions to lambaste America… it has to be said, China is not averse to commenting on the human rights situation in America.”
But ultimately, says Kelly, China’s response to human rights criticisms will be dictated by its own priorities, namely the preservation of stability ahead of a sensitive leadership change in the Communist Party set for later this year.