Was it just a bad joke, some wondered, that a country criticized for jailing political dissidents, harassing religious leaders and executing criminals en masse was hosting an international conference on human rights?
Not if you ask David G. Du Bois, son of one of the greatest promoters of civil rights and most influential African American thinkers in U.S. history, the late W.E.B. Du Bois.
The younger Du Bois journeyed to the Chinese capital this week for a two-day symposium on human rights--the first such international convention sponsored here--and came away optimistic.
"Fundamentally, there isn't an unfathomable chasm on the question of human rights," said Du Bois, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and president of a foundation named after his father. "We can find common ground."
Such was the goal of the symposium, which represented the latest crack in China's impregnable armor over an issue that it previously insisted was an internal affair. Recently, rights advocates have been cautiously encouraged by hints of greater openness on the issue from Beijing, which this month signed a U.N. covenant on civil and political rights.
But if the symposium was an indication of how far China has come since the deep freeze of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, it also pointed up difficulties that lie ahead for diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding. The 70-odd delegates, removed from the spotlight of political crisis, disagreed over basic philosophies.
At the crux of debate is a chicken-or-egg question: Which comes first--economic rights or social and political liberty?
Beijing has long held that the most fundamental right is the freedom from want of food and shelter. Political liberties, the argument goes, come afterward.
This reasoning was heard this week from the Chinese delegates, scholars and government officials who outnumbered attendees from all other countries combined, from Australia to Zambia. The Chinese delegation included no political dissidents.
"We have certain things that we emphasize. We put economic issues at the top of the agenda," said Dong Yunhu of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, one of the co-sponsors of the event. "But at the same time, we are working harder to build the rule of law."
The official New China News Agency adopted a more strident tone in a commentary that showed compromise to be farther down the line than some Western analysts might hope.
"The top priority of the Chinese government is to provide its 1.2 billion people with adequate food and clothing," the editorial said. "Any other approach would represent a gross exaggeration of human rights."
Jonathan Pollack, a China-watcher at Rand Corp., commented: "I don't want to be excessively cynical about this . . . but I have to assume that any Chinese in attendance [at the conference] know the script and know how to keep score."
Nonetheless, some took heart that the conference occurred at all.
For Du Bois, whose pedigree as a champion of civil rights few at the symposium could match, the visit continued a relationship with China that his family has cultivated since 1958, when his father met Mao Tse-tung and chatted about the nuclear arms race.
The younger Du Bois, who studied at Beijing University in 1959-60, acknowledged that the symposium included some lecturing from the Chinese side, but he called it informative.
A Western diplomat here who monitors rights contrasted the present situation with the hostility three years ago whenever the issue arose. At that time, Beijing cut off all such discussions with the U.S. and Western Europe, which together proposed official condemnations of China's human rights record at the United Nations in Geneva.
Last year, the Communist regime revived the discussions with European nations--though not yet with the United States--and raised hopes that the tension might at last be melting.
"When they started to do this, there was healthy skepticism about what it all meant. Was it just diplomatic window dressing? Where would it lead?" the diplomat said. "Over the last year, it's pretty astounding, actually, [for China] to reverse course, to host a dialogue over human rights."
Anthony Kuhn in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.