HONG KONG – President Xi Jinping’s impending state visit to the United States will focus attention on the widening differences between the two countries rather than their common interests despite a slowing economy and other domestic Chinese problems.
No issue is knottier than human rights, or as pressing. We received a preview last month when, for the first time in two years, a human rights dialogue was held. Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who led the American delegation, briefed the media afterward. Those present included representatives of China’s state media.
In opening remarks, Malinowski said there was a “growing sense of alarm” about human rights developments in China and that the issue “will be very prominently addressed” during the state visit. He called for “specific improvements.”
The American official focused on China’s ongoing crackdown on lawyers, with “over 250 attorneys, activists and their family members being detained, questioned, interrogated or held incommunicado.”
“It is hard to have rule of law when lawyers are arrested for defending their clients or when the government equates arguing a case in court with, quote, ‘creating a disturbance’ or ‘picking a quarrel’ — two of the vague offenses under which lawyers and others have been prosecuted,” Malinowski said.
Also of special concern was a draft NGO law which, he said, appears to place all foreign non-governmental entities under China’s ministry of public security and “applying criminal sanctions to ordinary acts that are fundamentally not criminal in character.”
When the questioning began, the China Daily asked about Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African-American who was shot dead by a white policeman in Ferguson, in Missouri.
As it turned out, this case was raised by the Chinese side during the closed-door session. Malinowski recalled that the Chinese said, “We all saw that on TV” and his response was, “Exactly, you saw it on TV because the Chinese state media was able to be in Ferguson and to cover those events nonstop from start to finish.”
Malinowski contrasted the situation with that in China, where the international media “does not have that kind of access when there is violence, for example, in Tibet or Xinjiang. Nor, I would add, did the United States government arrest the lawyers of Michael Brown or people who took video footage of the police violence.”
He recalled that, in China, the large-scale arrest of lawyers began with a case of alleged police violence in which a man was killed by the police. Then, Malinowski said, “a person videotaping that incident was arrested. That person’s lawyer was then arrested. And then 159 other lawyers and activists signed a petition on behalf of the lawyer, and they were all arrested.”
A reporter for the People’s Daily asked what the U.S. was doing to take “to tackle this kind of racial discrimination.”
Malinowski urged the reporter to talk to the different agencies that are working together to address those problems, including the Justice Department and the White House.
He stressed the importance of “the ability of the press to report on the problem without interference, without intimidation, without the risk of arrest; the ability of victims of abuse to seek redress through the courts and to have their cases judged independently, and not to have to worry about their lawyers also being punished for representing them; the ability of citizens who have grievances to go out and demonstrate publicly without worrying about being arrested or subjected to violence.”
Without those things, he said, it is impossible to take actions to address the problem. “But if you don’t have those basic institutions,” he said, “then you can’t even begin to address the problem.”
Turning to China, he said: “And so many of our concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, for example, and Tibet are really about the absence of an opportunity for people with grievances to be able to seek redress through all of those institutions.”
So the U.S. conceded that it, like China, has human rights problems but, unlike China, the U.S. allows the public — including the foreign media — to report and comment on the issues.
Significantly, Malinowski argued for greater access within China by diplomats and journalists “on the basis of reciprocity.” This is a shift from the previous American stance of not imposing restrictions on Chinese journalists or limiting the issuance of journalist visas.
If Washington now shifts to reciprocity as an instrument as part of a tougher stance toward China, it will substantially strengthen its hand, not only in human rights but in other areas as well.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.