U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue: Soft Power Gone Hard?

Originally published by Wall Street Journal, April 27 2011

By Kin Cheung/Associated Press


Pro-democracy protesters and artists hold a banner of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Chinese writing “Undaunted Art, Innocent Truth” during a demonstration in Hong Kong Saturday, April 23, 2011 as they demand release of Ai. U.S. diplomats planned to discuss recent disappearances and detentions of Chinese dissidents during human rights talks in Beijing this week, the U.S. State Department said.
With Beijing in the midst of unyielding crackdown on dissidents, how much can the latest round of U.S.-China human rights discussions, currently underway in Beijing, possibly hope to accomplish?

The prospect of Chinese and U.S. officials holding constructive talks on human rights didn’t seem so absurd in back in January. At the time, China was in the midst of an elaborate “soft power” push, rolling out an glossy national image ad on Times Square just as Chinese president Hu Jintao was making his way to the White House for a summit with Barack Obama.

At a press conference with Mr. Obama following the summit, Mr. Hu thrilled some top figures in Washington by admitting that “a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights” and indicating a willingness to discuss the issue with other countries.

That was then.

Spooked by anonymous online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in February, Beijing is in the midst of a crackdown on dissent that has seen dozens of writers, lawyers, artists, religious leaders and other and political activists arrested, detained or, in some cases, simply disappeared. Confronted with criticism over the sometimes extralegal measures taken to silence critics of the regime, China’s Foreign Ministry has been defiant, insisting foreign journalists and foreign countries should mind their own business.

Security, in other words, appears to have taken precedence over soft power.

Human rights talks between China and the U.S. are an on-again-off-again event. Beijing suspended the dialogues in 2004 in protest over a U.S-sponsored UN resolution criticizing China, agreed to resume the talks in 2008 then boycotted them again in 2009. The talks, when they actually occur, are known more for producing platitudes about the benefits of communicating than genuine breakthroughs, but the U.S. seems even less likely to win concessions from China this time around.

Ahead of the meetings, the U.S. laid out in blunt terms its concerns with challenges to human rights in China, saying in a statement that the discussions in Beijing would include “the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, and arrests and convictions,” among an array of other human rights issues.

While the recent crackdown gives the U.S. plenty of ammunition, Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, an NGO based in Hong Kong and New York, argues that China’s willingness to sacrifice its international reputation in pursuit of security could make things harder on the U.S.

“The U.S. has very few levers to push with,” Ms. Hom told China Real Time. Prior to the crackdown, the biggest advantage the U.S. possessed, she said, was “not economic and not political leverage. It was soft power.”

Beijing has spent lavishly in an effort to improve its image abroad. In addition to the Times Square ad, China has greatly expanded the international presence of state-controlled media and funded an extensive network of Confucius Institutes to promote the study of Mandarin abroad. It seems unlikely that Beijing’s current security concerns would cause it abandon that effort altogether. If anything, China’s willingness to participate in the talks shows it still wants to be seen as a reasonable power.

Yet the government has lately made virtually no effort to reconcile the current crackdown with the image it wants to project.

Comments at a regular news conference Tuesday by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman are perhaps the clearest indication yet that tough talk from the Chinese side will continue. “We oppose that any country interferes in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights issues,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in response to a question about the human rights talks.

–Brian Spegele, with contributions from Josh Chin. Follow Brian on Twitter @bspegele.