US, China launch human rights talks

Dissident Chen Guangcheng says Washington is ‘compromising’ human rights for economic gain

Chen Guangcheng at his NYU housing apartment. (Massoud Hayoun/ Al Jazeera)

U.S. diplomats launched a new round of talks on human rights with Chinese officials Tuesday that civil liberties advocates say have "produced little concrete results" in the past.

Meanwhile, Chen Guangcheng — the blind dissident lawyer from China whose 2012 bid for political asylum in the U.S. led to a standoff with Chinese authorities — says the United States' growing trade and line of credit with China has taken precedence over efforts to promote Chinese human rights, after New York University refuted Chen's allegations that it declined to continue his fellowship because of plans for an NYU campus in Shanghai.

"Compromise for economic reasons has affected the promotion of democracy and human rights," Chen told Al Jazeera America at his apartment in New York's West Village.

"If for these short term economic benefits, the U.S. gives up on its long-standing values, that would be the greatest act of negligence to what this country stands for."

This year, Washington has on multiple occasions addressed China's human rights, in the context of trade talks. The 18th U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue beginning Tuesday and being held in China's southwestern Yunnan Province happening is focused on "building on discussions" held during the most recent trade talks in early July, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a release.

But Chinese human rights advocates, like Chen, aren't optimistic the dialogue in Yunnan will actually do much.

"The Chinese government has refused to open the dialogue to Chinese civil society activists," said Renee Xia, international director of advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "The talks have been held behind closed doors." She added that "both sides did not have benchmarks to measure the success or usefulness of the dialogues."

'Moral support'

Still, Xia said that Washington has, at times, been effective in its efforts to promote the fair treatment of Chinese nationals, a duty that she said falls to the U.S. because both countries are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council. As members of the group, they have pledged to secure human rights, both domestic and internationally.

"When Washington speaks up clearly, publicly, on behalf of victims of rights abuses and denounces violations, it does make some difference on the ground," she said.

"Sometimes, the condition of prisoners of conscience could be improved when those in powerful countries or international bodies speak up for victims of rights abuses."

But like Chen, Xia feels the growing U.S. dependence on the second-largest world economy has stunted America's push for expanded Chinese human rights.

"Overall, due to China's rising economic power, it is harder for the U.S. to impose punitive measures for human rights violations in China than in other countries such as Russia or Iran," she said. "The U.S. needs China's cheap labor and the [purchase] of U.S. Treasury bonds."

U.S. officials revealed in July that two months earlier, China had increased its ownership of Treasury bonds and notes by 2 percent, holding an unprecedented $1.32 trillion in U.S. debt.

Xia also noted the co-dependence in the Sino-U.S. partnership, saying that China's dependence on American consumerism enabled Washington to "pressure China to let loose the exchange rate," but the developing relationship between the two world economic powers "is more complex than a pure business one," she said.

That makes it quite "difficult to directly link the softer treatment of China's abusive government to business ties between the U.S. and China," she added.

Moving out

Chen Guangcheng argues that he has fallen victim to a growing U.S. partnership with China that has sidelined human rights concerns.

His claims were seemingly backed up by the state of his New York University–owned apartment, which was strewn with large, brown boxes.

"We're packing up," Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, said, apologizing for the mess.

Their move comes after Chen was asked to leave his apartment and his fellowship at NYU's U.S.-Asia Law Institute. An unnamed university source said the decision to release Chen from his post came after NYU's push for its new Shanghai campus, set to welcome its first class this fall.

Chen echoed rumors that Beijing was behind the university's decision in a statement released to the media.

"In fact, as early as August and September, the Chinese Communists had already begun to apply great, unrelenting pressure on New York University, so much so that after we had been in the United States just three to four months, NYU was already starting to discuss our departure with us," Chen wrote.

NYU vehemently denied Chen's accusations.

"The claims and speculations about the role of the Chinese government in NYU's decision-making are both false and contradicted by the well-established facts, most notably that NYU took Mr. Chen in at the moment when his plight was receiving the most focused worldwide attention even though we had not received approvals for our campus in Shanghai," university spokesman John Beckman said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera.

Beckman explained that from the onset, Chen was slated to stay for only a year.

Chen refused to discuss NYU's decision.

"I've already written my statement on the issue," Chen said.

Shortly after NYU's decision was announced, a benefactor pulled funding for Chen to conduct a fellowship at New York City's Fordham University after it was discovered that he accepted donations from Bob Fu, president of the conservative group ChinaAid, which aims to promote human rights in China — and is anti-abortion rights.

In China, Chen was a leading voice against the forced abortions resulting from Beijing's One Child Policy. Since his arrival in the U.S., Chen's work against abortion has been widely interpreted as a symbol of the movement that opposes the procedure, but Chen says he has no interest in American abortion politics.

"I will partner with anyone who wants human rights in China, regardless of their political partisanship," Chen said.

Frenemies on rights?

Regarding Chen's allegations that the U.S. is overlooking Chinese human rights to curry favor with the People's Republic, U.S. politicians deny that economics have played a role in their China diplomacy.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn,, a commissioner on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China did not respond to questions specifically about how Chen's 2012 bid for asylum may have threatened Washington's partnership with Beijing, but did offer these remarks:

"No friendship is made strong without constructive criticism," he said. "Because our relationship is never about one thing, it would be a mistake to presume that a budding economic partnership would alter our focus on human rights."

The State Department had not responded to an interview request at time of publication.

Al Jazeera

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