- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Critics of China’s human rights record say they face a tough battle to keep the issue high on the crowded U.S.-China agenda as President Bush prepares to welcome Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House tomorrow.

Once a prickly centerpiece of the bilateral relationship, Beijing’s record on human rights and political freedoms now must compete with a wealth of other pressing issues at the half-day summit, from nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea to energy, trade and the proper value of the Chinese currency.

“Certainly, we are using this issue to highlight China’s record, which is bad and getting worse,” said T. Kumar, director of Asia policy for the Washington office of Amnesty International.

“But the administration’s real focus in recent weeks has been much more on Iran and North Korea than on human rights.”

Bates Gill, a China scholar at the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS), predicted Mr. Bush and Mr. Hu would focus primarily on economic and security questions, despite the massive challenges facing China domestically.

“Questions of China’s domestic political transformation and the need for greater freedoms, democratization, strike me as receiving a distant third place, at least in terms of real, substantive developments,” Mr. Gill said.

China’s booming economy and expanding military have apparently given Mr. Hu and China’s communist leadership new confidence to stand up to U.S. criticisms on human rights.

Beijing has not even bothered to release a high-profile dissident in the weeks before the Bush-Hu summit, a token gesture that typically preceded previous high-level visits.

Some have denounced the ploy, but CSIS’s Derek Mitchell noted, “Right now, [China’s leaders] are withstanding that kind of pressure and not even checking the boxes in these areas.”

The State Department’s annual survey of global human rights was particularly critical of China this year, accusing Beijing of increasing “harassment, detention and imprisonment, by government and security authorities, of those perceived as threatening.”

Administration officials insist Mr. Bush and his top aides will not pull their punches on China’s human rights record at the summit. Mr. Bush is said to be particularly focused on the plight of churches facing heavy government control.

A senior administration official, briefing reporters on background, said Mr. Bush will privately raise the cases of individual dissidents in China, but will press Mr. Hu for broader systemic reform.

“It’s easy to look at a particularly hard case and be very concerned about an individual, but our concern is to help hundreds of millions of Chinese experience true freedom,” the official said.

David Tawei Lee, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Washington, said neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Hu wanted to see China’s human rights record dominate their summit, where the short discussion period will be even shorter because of the need for translation.

“I think for the United States, the top issues will be economic ones, followed by Iran and North Korea, and only then human rights. For Beijing, the No. 1 issue they’d like to talk about is Taiwan,” Mr. Lee told reporters and editors in an interview at The Washington Times.

While Chinese officials have sharply limited Mr. Hu’s exposure to press questioning during the trip, human rights activists have planned a full schedule of events to highlight their cause, including a protest by the Falun Gong religious movement and a critical hearing by a House International Relations subcommittee on human rights today.

Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China, contended that talks with Beijing on security and economic reform are fundamentally about human rights, because only a legitimate government can deliver lasting stability and prosperity.

“Hu and his cronies should be on notice: We’re putting the pressure on while he’s here, but we’re not going away when he goes back home,” she said.

Related article:

Taiwan confident Hu visit will not hurt its ‘interests’

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