BEIJING — The United States and China will have their annual meeting on human rights next week, but there are signs that the session may be more tense than usual.
According to a statement issued by the State Department, the two sides are to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Beijing for what has become a regular springtime meeting on human rights.
But the statement was highly unusual for several reasons, not least because Washington made the announcement for a meeting to be held in Beijing — which runs counter to diplomatic protocol — and because it was made just days before the event.
Indeed, the Chinese government confirmed the meeting late Friday only after repeated calls to the Foreign Ministry. A day earlier, a ministry spokesman said details still had to be “discussed and arranged.”
“Objectively speaking, the announcement is being made at the last minute,” said Joshua Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation, a rights group in Hong Kong. “It’s also interesting that the U.S. is making it unilaterally and that they’re using this language.”
The American announcement bluntly says that the talks will focus on “the recent negative trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions and arrests and convictions” — highly unusual in such a statement and most likely reflecting Washington’s growing frustration with the human rights situation in China.
China is in the midst of a crackdown on dissent in which dozens of lawyers and activists have been rounded up. Some have been detained for brief questioning; others have disappeared for months without a trace.
The most prominent is Ai Weiwei, an artist and critic detained this month when trying to board a flight to Hong Kong. The immediate catalyst for the crackdown seems to have been a call by dissidents for Chinese to emulate the “jasmine” revolutions of North Africa. Even though few people heeded the calls to protest, the government has reacted strongly.
Western human rights analysts say the clampdown shows the limits of government-to-government human rights dialogue. Besides the United States, other countries and the European Union have similar sessions, which usually take place in private once a year. Typically, Western countries bring up problems or lists of detained dissidents, and China responds by saying that it is a country ruled by laws, and that those people violated the law.
“Having the meeting now that so many human rights activists are missing puts the spotlight on the fact that these kinds of meetings are toothless,” said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “It’s a talk shop more than anything else.”