US, China set 2011 rights meeting in "candid" talks
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Chinese officials agreed after two days of talks on human rights to start exchanges of legal experts and hold another rights dialogue in China next year, a State Department official said on Friday.
While Assistant Secretary Mike Posner said he valued the "candid and constructive" tone of the talks and raised specific cases of jailed lawyers and democracy activists, he indicated the meetings did not win the release of Chinese political or religious prisoners, as sought by the human rights community.
"We have, we will continue to raise our concerns about specific cases," Posner told reporters.
He declined to discuss the cases in detail, including the hacking and censorship that prompted U.S. Internet search giant Google Corp to quit the Chinese market this year.
The cases of Liu Xiaobo, jailed last year for 11 years for advocating political reforms, and detained human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng were among those raised in the discussions that covered topics like religious freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression, the Internet and racial discrimination.
"I was encouraged by the degree to which we had a back-and-forth dialogue," Posner said.
The talks, last held in 2008 and before that in 2002, were the first under the Obama administration. They were viewed skeptically by rights experts, who complained that President Barack Obama has not been full-throated in support of the cause even as conditions in China have worsened in recent years.
NEGOTIATING THE TALKS DOWN
China's surging economic and political power make it less receptive to criticism, human rights experts said. China is the biggest holder of American government debt and an important, if difficult, U.S. diplomatic partner in efforts to rein in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
"The tone of the discussion was very much 'we're two powerful, great countries. We have a range of issues that we are engaged on. Human rights is part of that discussion and it's going to remain so,'" said Posner.
Chinese officials did not make public comments on the talks, which Posner said also covered U.S. issues, such Arizona's draconian new policies on illegal immigrants, racial relations and the problems of Muslim Americans.
Posner said he would join the May 24-25 U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Beijing, an annual meeting of top officials expected to discuss global issues such as climate change and security, as well as bilateral disputes over Tibet, Taiwan, Internet freedom and the value of the yuan currency.
The legal program he and senior Chinese diplomat Chen Xu agreed to would cover rule of law, legal reform and the role of lawyers, said Posner. Those topics were aired in a presentation by retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a U.S. advocacy group, said the talks process has lost vigor compared to a decade ago, when China would at least free dissidents ahead of key U.S. visits.
"The Chinese have done a good job of negotiating the dialogue down to a level that I'm sure they would rather not have, but that they now find much more manageable or bearable," she said.
Richardson said that law exchanges are useful and worthy, but no substitute for "passionate and precise" advocacy on behalf of China's large ranks of political prisoners.
"If I have to choose between robust American rhetoric in defense of real rule of law in China or another rule-of-law program, I certainly choose the former," she said.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)
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