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Assistant Secretary Posner’s Remarks on the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue

U.S. Embassy, Beijing, China



Assistant Secretary Michael Posner on the U.S. China Human Rights Dialogue
Assistant Secretary Michael Posner on the U.S. China Human Rights Dialogue

Click here for the Mandarin Chinese translation of Assistant Secretary Posner’s remarks

Assistant Secretary Posner:
Good afternoon.  I want to thank you all for coming here so late in the day.  It’s good to be back in Beijing.  This is my third visit here in the last year since the Strategic and Economic Dialogue last May. 

There’s a lot of commentary these days about the relationship between the U.S. and China in the 21st Century.  It’s a vitally important but also very complex relationship.  There are a range of issues on which we now coordinate, interact on an ongoing basis. 

I’m here this week to lead a U.S. delegation for the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue.  We see this Dialogue very much within the broader context of the U.S.-China relationship. 

As President Obama, Secretary Clinton and many others from our government have made clear, we welcome and want a strong partnership with a strong and stable and prosperous China.   

We believe that societies that respect human rights and address the aspirations of their people are more prosperous, successful and stable.   

We also recognize China’s extraordinary achievement in economic reform over the past three decades, and it’s lifting literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.  At the same time we believe that political reforms in China have not matched these economic advances. 

It’s important to be clear about what our Human Rights Dialogue is and what it isn’t.  It is a chance for us to engage in depth and in detail on a number of issues and specific cases.  It isn’t a negotiation.  It is a forum in which we engage frankly and candidly. 

In fact in recent months we’ve seen a serious back-sliding on human rights and a discussion of these negative trends dominated the Human Rights Dialogue these past two days.  We have been and are very concerned over recent months by reports that dozens of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists like Ai Weiwei and others have been arrested, detained or in some cases disappeared with no regard to legal measures. 

A particular concern is what seems to be a range of interferences with the work of lawyers who are often courageously working to defend others from charges or to help citizens register their concerns.  Lawyers like Teng Biao who has been missing since February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who with his wife Yuan Weijing is under house arrest since his release from prison last year. 

Our discussions these last two days focused on these lawyers, but also bloggers, artists, NGO activists, journalists, representatives of minority religious communities and others who were asserting their rights and calling for reform. 

Here and elsewhere we believe strongly that change occurs from within a society, so discussions about human rights are not about us, but about how Chinese citizens determine their own political future.  Societies need to give their own people an opportunity to voice and pursue their aspirations. 

I’m glad to take your questions. 

Question:  As you were saying, we’ve seen a wave of extra judicial detentions and disappearances recently.  We’ve also seen that in spite of pleas from even Barack Obama himself, from President Obama himself, China has made no concessions on the case of Xue Feng.  I was wondering first of all if you can tell us if that particular case came up.  And secondly, what does it tell you about China’s leverage on these issues when China doesn’t seem to be willing to make any moves on any of these issues.  Thank you. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  First on the case, I did raise it with Ambassador Huntsman yesterday morning, and we will continue to raise that important case. 

More broadly, I think our view is that we engage with the government of China on a range of levels in a range of different fora and we will continue to express our concerns privately, and as I’m doing here today, in public.  We are mindful of the difficulty of this conversation.  We had a tough set of discussions, raised a number of specific cases.  We don’t see that as a beginning or an end of the process.  This is obviously a difficult issue and one where our disagreements are profound.  But I’ve worked in the human rights business for 30-some years and I know well that persistence is critical and I know how much those who are challenging governments by raising their voices, by bringing lawsuits, benefit from the engagement by governments like ours in pursuing their claims for justice. 

Question:  I have two short questions for you. 

Number one, talking about the Libya and Syria situations, the human rights situations there.  It’s very serious.  Do you think the United States will take some humanitarian intervention to protect the human rights there? 

Also talking about the Dialogue.  Did you see any developments from China and the United States to promote women’s for human rights cooperation?  Thanks. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I’m sorry, what was the second?  Just say that again. 

Question:  The second question is, have you seen any developments for China to promote women’s human rights? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Thanks. 

On the issue of Libya, we have, as you know and as Secretary Clinton and the President articulated, pursued two tracks of a policy.  One was the decision by the Security Council in Resolution 1973 to impose a no-fly zone at a moment when Benghazi was under siege as a humanitarian measure and to protect lives.  We know that’s not a solution, but it’s a piece of it. 

The other piece which we continue to engage in quite actively with the Arab League, with our European allies and others, is to encourage a diplomatic, political resolution.  We have said time and again and will continue to say that it’s well past time for Colonel Gadhafi to go.  It’s a desperate situation now.  We’re obviously very concerned about the humanitarian issues you raised, and we’re doing all that we can both as part of that multinational coalition, but also working with private organizations to try to mitigate the humanitarian damage that’s now occurring. 

On the issue of treatment of women, we are very engaged in that issue in a range of ways.  It’s an issue that Secretary Clinton has worked on as an activist, as the First Lady, as a Senator, and now as Secretary of State.  She raises the issue and has raised the profile of those issues in a wonderful way with Melanne Verveer who is the Ambassador for Women’s Issues. 

We look for partners, including the Chinese government, to help us advance that agenda.  I can’t say that it was a central feature of our discussion, but it’s the sort of issue where I think there is the potential for us to work together. 

Question:  I have a question about the criticism that having separate U.S.-China human rights talks actually serves to marginalize the issue.  I wondered if you had any comment on that. 

Then I also wanted to ask, the Chinese keep saying they want to hold the Dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect.  I just wondered what does that mean to the U.S. side?  Do you feel that request was met this time?  Thank you. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I don’t view the discussions we had in the last several days as marginalizing the discussion.  Precisely because this is not the only place the issues are going to be raised, or have been raised.  The discussion of human rights will be part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that comes up in Washington in a week’s time or two weeks’ time.  It is an issue that’s raised by the President as it was in his meetings with President Hu Jintao in Washington in January.  It is an issue that Secretary Clinton raises as she did also in January in a speech at the State Department. 

This is an opportunity, more than those occasions, for us to have an in-depth discussion.  A detailed discussion about journalists, about bloggers, about religious issues, about what’s happening in Tibet, what’s happening with the Uighurs.  We went into great detail, both talking about patterns that we see of concern, but also raising cases as illustrative of the broader patterns. 

You don’t have a chance to do that in a speech and you don’t have a chance to do it in a meeting where you have multiple issues on the table.  

So I view this as a starting point or a feature.  It’s an element of what we do.  This does not constitute our human rights policy. 

On the issue of mutual respect, my style is not to beat my shoe on the table and scream, but I know how to be direct.  Again, outside of government for many years, and now a year and a half in the government, I am well able to raise tough issues in a straightforward manner.  We did that and we’ll continue to do that. 

Again, I think it’s perfectly in line with the notion of respect, exchange of views, but identifying our differences clearly and in a way that leaves no doubt about what our concerns are and will be in the future. 

Question:  Could you go into more specifics on, for example, just to pick a case, Ai Weiwei’s case?  When you say why did this person disappear, what is the due process under Chinese law, what responses do you get specifically on these cases?  Were there any answers provided?  And can you say who you met with on the Chinese side? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Let me answer the second thing first.  The Director General Chen Xu from the Foreign Ministry was the leader of the delegation, but I think there were seven or eight other ministries — Public Security, someone from the Supreme Court, Labor, Religious, et cetera.  Justice.  So one of the things that I think is useful about the Dialogue is that it is a place where we’re talking to a range of Chinese government institutions or offices. 

I’m not going to characterize every one of the discussions.  What I will say is, with regard to Ai Weiwei, we raised concerns both about the fact that he was arrested on April 3rd; the fact that his family still has not had contact with him; and great concern about the notion that someone who is a peaceful critic of the government seems to be endangered in terms of their ability to speak out.  Ai Weiwei is a global figure, a prominent artist, and there has been, one of the things we expressed, which is just a simple fact, is that the arts community, the Guggenheim Museum, the Tate Museum and others, have all of a sudden focused on the deterioration of the human rights situation in China because of Ai Weiwei’s global prominence. 

I think in terms of what the government said to us, I’d encourage you to go ask them. 

Question:  They don’t say much to us, so I’d really like to know what they said to you if you can tell us. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  What I would say is, on that case, we certainly did not get an answer that satisfies.  There was no sense of comfort from the response or the lack of response. 

Question:  A couple of questions. 

Would you say anything concrete came out of this meeting in terms of any sort of an agreement or anything that moved the Dialogue forward?  And also, do you feel that it’s worth continuing with this Dialogue instead of folding it into the Strategic Dialogue? 

And finally, from your own understanding, from the perspective of your own understanding of what’s going on here and why, are you coming away with a clearer understanding of why there’s been this tightening up over the last couple of months? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  On the question of concrete outcomes, I view this as, as I said earlier, part of a broader process.  I think one concrete outcome is that we had extensive discussions about the range of issues that I outlined — religious freedom and Tibet and the Uighurs and issues relating to arrests of lawyers and journalists and so forth.  We had more time to go into more detail and express our concerns. 

When I talk to human rights activists in countries they always say two things.  They say it’s helpful for governments to raise these issues and not do it superficially.  Go into detail, press the case that these are universal human rights and that there are standards that have been violated.  We did that. 

The second thing they say is that it’s helpful if those conversations, those private conversations, are also reinforced by public comment.  That’s what I’m doing here.  This is not the beginning of the process and it’s not the end of the process. 

I defer judgment on what’s next, other than to say we need to, and will continue to, raise these issues in a range of fora.  It will not just be me raising these issues.  The most senior government officials of the United States are deeply concerned about the deterioration of human rights in China over the last several months.  They will continue to express that.  It will be part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and we’re going to then take it one step at a time. 

There was an agreement in January between the Presidents — Hu Jintao and Barack Obama — to have a Legal Experts Dialogue which we’ve now agreed we will do sometime in June.  That’s another piece of the puzzle here.  I think some useful things may come out of that.   

So from my perspective, we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket, but this is a piece of the larger picture in terms of registering our views and expressing our concerns and also gathering information about what’s really going on.

As to why things have changed here, there are multiple theories.  I’m not really a political scientist.  I only know what I see and the facts are that things have worsened and we’re going to continue to pursue our expressions of concern about that. 

Question:  And on the usefulness of the dialogue? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Again, I think we are at point now where we need to go one step at a time.  We’ve just completed a two-day discussion.  We’re going to have another set of discussions in the context of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.  We’re going to see what happens with the Legal Experts Dialogue.  Then we’ll make judgments depending on how things develop. 

Question:  Can I ask, you said just now that you were not satisfied with the response in the case of Ai Weiwei.  Were you satisfied with the response in any case?  And if so, which one or ones?  

A second question, on the issue of forced disappearances and extrajudicial detentions, what exactly are you saying to the Chinese broadly on that issue, and are they giving any reasons for that? 

The final question is, with the situation in North Africa and the Middle East we’ve seen many countries, there have been many people out on the streets demanding political rights.  Do you think there are implications for China from that? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  On the question of satisfaction, that’s a relative term.  There are a couple of lawyers who disappeared several weeks ago and who were released last week.  I welcome the fact that they are now, they’ve been released.  I don’t welcome the fact that they were detained in the first place. 

On the issue of disappearance, what we’ve said is that universal human rights start with the integrity of the person.  All governments, including our own, have an obligation not to torture people, to make them disappear, to detain them arbitrarily without due process.  And so the starting point for us is that this is not an interference in their affairs, but something we do in every country in the world where we see these violations of what we regard as fundamental, universal human rights. 

On the Middle East, every country has its own history, trajectory.  We did not spend time and I’m not going to here theorize on how one thing relates to the other.  I’m very focused on what I said in my opening statement which is that this is about people in this society who have a range of concerns about public issues, public policy, having the ability to debate and advocate on behalf of their differences with the government.  And a healthy rights-respecting society finds the space for people to speak out, to write blogs.  They find space for lawyers to litigate cases against the government on issues that are sensitive.  It finds a place for international journalists to walk around without being threatened.  All of those things matter.  All of those things are the subject of our discussions the last several days. 

Question:  Just as a follow-up, was there any sort of explanation or even acknowledgement that the situation had sort of worsened on the Chinese side?  Was there any sort of explanation to you that yes, things are getting tighter for one reason or another?  

And finally, given some of the tensions in the relationship, how would you characterize the tone of the talks?  The atmosphere? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I don’t think anybody stood up and said “oh yeah, things have gotten worse,” except me.  But there were certainly a sense that – and I did this Dialogue last year in Washington with the Director General Chen Xu – there is no question that the atmosphere is different because the facts are different.  So I think there was – on both sides, by all of us -a recognition that there is, as we speak there are people who in the last two or three months have been detained and disappeared and are having all kinds of human rights problems.  Those are the things we talked about.  There was a sense of the immediacy and a sense of seriousness. 

Again, respectful in tone.  It was not a discussion where there were voices raised.  But it was a discussion that was very much based on the facts, and the facts are not good. 

Question:  You mentioned that the Ministry of Public Security was involved.  I wonder whether they’ve been involved in these sorts of dialogues before, or is that something new? 

And was the Ministry of State Security also involved in this set of talks? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  It was the Ministry of State Security that was involved, and they were involved last year. 

Question:  You mentioned the case of lawyers and in particular of Teng Biao. In the case of Ai Weiwei, for example, the government has said that they understand he’s being investigated for economic crimes.  In the case of Teng Biao and other lawyers there seems to have been simply silence.  I wondered what response you had from the Chinese side when you raised those issues. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Teng Biao’s case is one that I’m particularly concerned about because he has been missing for the last several weeks.  He’s a prominent professor and human rights lawyer.  He’s exactly the sort of person who a society wants and needs to be available to represent clients who are on the margin. 

I’m also very concerned about Gao Zhisheng’s case, a case that I raised last year;  Secretary Clinton has raised;  I’ve raised several times.  His disappearance, or whereabouts unknown, since April of 2010, so we’re now a year.  It isn’t to say that there aren’t concerns about people who are going through the legal process, but it’s most unsettling and disturbing obviously to the families, but to all of us, when people simply disappear.  It’s a fundamental human right to have a legal personality, and if a government wants to take someone in custody they need to bring them before a court and subject them to a legal proceeding. 

Let me just correct myself.  It was the Ministry of Public Security that was there.  They’ve been involved I think multiple times.  They were certainly there last year. 

Question:  Sorry, could I clarify?  Did the Chinese officials acknowledge that Teng Biao was detained in any way?  Did they give you any substantive answer when you raised his case? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Again, I would simply say — I don’t want to get into the details of every one of the conversations, but I continue to have real concerns about that case in particular. 

Question:  Two questions.  One, I have not heard you mention the case of Liu Xiaobo yet, and I presume that came up.  I know you don’t want to get into details, but that seems to be a rather prominent case.  Perhaps you could tell us a bit about that. 

Secondly, some of the newspapers here running up to these talks have published broad sheets about supposed human rights violations in the United States.  This being a dialogue, I presume they also raised these problems with you.  Can you tell us a little bit about your response? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Sure.  We did indeed talk about Liu Xiaobo and it’s also a case that Secretary Clinton and the President have raised multiple times.  His 11 year sentence for publishing the Charter 08 Document is to us unacceptable and a violation of a basic right to free speech. 

We actually spent probably more time talking about the status of Liu Xia his wife, who is, again, in an odd way, outside of any kind of clear legal process.  We would be very eager to meet with her, to have communication, make sure she has communication with others, and there is some real concern on our part that she’s in a kind of legal limbo at this point.  It’s not clear what her status is.  We raised that quite often, in several different ways. 

With respect to the role of the United States, they did raise several issues.  I would say honestly it was not a very big feature of the Dialogue.  We spoke about our participation in the Universal Periodic Review which is a UN procedure, relatively new, which calls on every government to prepare a report and then go to the UN Human Rights Council, which I did last November.  My colleague, Dan Baer, who’s here, did in March with our Legal Advisor, Harold Koh.  We felt very good about the way in which we undertook that review because we allowed lots of our own civil society activists to weigh in with their concerns. 

But I’m very proud of what the United States does in this area.  Not because we don’t ever have challenges or problems, but because we are an open society that has lots of public interest advocates, human rights advocates, raising every issue that anybody else would raise and then some.  We have lawyers who represent every kind of cause imaginable across the political spectrum.  And there are journalists and bloggers who are out there all the time analyzing what we do and voicing criticism.  Those people are not at risk.  There is a sense that because we are an open society we allow those things, and frankly, it makes us stronger. 

Question:  You’ve been really clear about your level of dissatisfaction with the human rights situation and the step backwards, as you described it, that China has taken.  Do you use in any way, how will this affect the overall relations, the step back that China has taken, the overall bilateral relations between the U.S. and China?  Thanks. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I think it’s, again, it goes back to something I said at the outset.  These human rights issues, promotion of human rights and democracy, is a central element of U.S. policy in the world in the Obama administration.  Principled engagement means that we deal with countries around the world in multiple ways.  We have strategic interests, we have economic interests, we have other political interests.  But human rights is an essential feature of what we do. 

So to the extent that there are serious human rights problems, those problems become an impediment to the relationship and they make the other aspects of the relationship more difficult.  It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop engaging.  It doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the importance of the relationship.  But inevitably when there’s a deterioration as there has been here, it makes the relationship that much harder. 

Question:  My question is about Liu Xia.  I’m wondering, during your conversation with the Chinese side, have you asked information like how is her or his health?  And are you going to visit her for some other relevant information?  Thank you. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  As I said earlier, we raised her case, raised concerns about her well-being and her situation and we have, and I think our embassy officials here on several occasions have made efforts to see her, to meet with her.   So there is, I would say, an outstanding request on our part to be able to talk to her and to meet with her.  We will continue to pursue that. 

Question:  Is there any arrangement to visit Liu Xia yet? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  Not presently.  The request is in. 

Question:  The Chinese government always criticizes that the States and other Western countries are using the human rights issue to interfere the internal policy of the Chinese government.  So what is your comment about this saying?  Thanks. 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  I disagree with that.  This is not about us.  It’s about the Chinese people and their relationship to their government.  We do believe, and again having worked in this field for a long time, I know that change comes from within a society and it comes when people have the ability peacefully to express their views and to debate and advance their aspirations with their own governments. 

The issues we’re describing are based on universal human rights standards which do not have boundaries.  Every human being, on the basis of their humanity, is entitled to be treated with dignity, to have fairness, to have justice, and our raising these issues are not because of the United States or the West.  It’s because people inside China are asking, demanding that there be an opening up of the process so that their basic human rights can be respected.  We’re simply reinforcing what many Chinese people themselves are asking. 

Question:  Do you feel from your talks this time that in the longer term, do you feel China’s becoming increasingly less receptive to U.S. criticism or suggestions?  If that’s the case, why do you think that might be? 

Assistant Secretary Posner:  With due respect, I don’t think that’s the right question.  I think the real question is, is there in the long term the prospect for China to become a more open society, where there is the possibility for the kind of political discourse and engagement that I talked about.  On that front, I am optimistic. I’ve been, again, working in this field a long time.  I always feel the glass is half full.  But this is a dynamic society; there are a lot of people here with extraordinary energy.  They’ve demonstrated it in the way there’s been economic development and progress.  It’s also a society where we were told 450 million people are netizens.  So the combination of people’s ambition, aspiration, the increasing openness of global communication and travel, all of those things to me suggest that over the long term there is going to be positive change here. 

Our role is not to be at the center of that, but simply to reinforce and encourage this government to allow more open space for those kinds of discussions to begin to take place in a more orderly way. 

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