WASHINGTON – The agenda is lengthy, the time is short, and U.S. leaders long have felt they have had limited success in moving China to respect the rights of its citizens.
The White House says President Bush will make the effort anew in his talks with President Hu Jintao today. Members of Congress are impatient, wanting action and skeptical that much will be accomplished.
“Hope remains eternal that the president will raise this issue robustly,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., after his House International Relations subcommittee on human rights heard witnesses criticize China’s record.
Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., wrote Bush on Wednesday saying “there has been an unfortunate backsliding in China’s human rights record in recent years.”
They cited a State Department report in 2005 about “a trend toward increased harassment, detention and imprisonment by government and security authorities of those perceived as threatening to government authority.”
Human Rights Watch, a private watchdog group, urged Bush in a letter last week to raise a half-dozen issues with Hu. They included China’s increased restrictions on free expression, torture of detainees and its judicial system, which does not respect the right of due process for criminal suspects, said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the group’s Asia division.
The organization also cited Beijing’s restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, harassment of human rights activists and abuse of petitioners.
“We are concerned human rights issues have not been given the priority in discussions with China that we would like,” she said Wednesday.
Dennis Wilder, a China specialist at Bush’s National Security Council, told reporters in a briefing on Hu’s visit that Bush “will continue to make the point to President Hu that they cannot let their population increasingly experience the freedom to buy, sell and produce while denying them the right to assemble, speak and worship as they choose.”
Wilder described the Bush-Hu relationship as a strong one – the leaders met five times last year – and he complimented China for fighting terror and disease.
China’s economy is growing so fast it is now the third largest U.S. trading partner. Wilder said it was unfortunate that political freedoms lagged economic ones.
Bush is looking for help from Hu as the U.N. Security Council prepares to take up Iran’s nuclear programs. Negotiations with North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons production remain stalemated.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the council should consider “strong steps” to pressure Iran. China’s support would be essential if the U.S. and the Europeans tried to impose political or economic penalties against Iran.
China also plays the leading role in talks with North Korea.
Feingold and Brownback told Bush that the expanding Chinese economy has become a tool for repression. “Chinese authorities have grown increasingly adept at using the tools of technology to repress free expression and dissent,” they said.