U.S. envoy Michael Posner said Thursday that China was "backsliding" on human rights and that, in two days of talks, Chinese officials had failed to give satisfactory answers about writers, intellectuals, lawyers, churchgoers and artists who have been arrested or have disappeared.
The latest talks on human rights, part of an intermittent dialogue over the last two decades, come in the midst of what China experts say is the most serious crackdown since the military stormed Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"In recent months, we've seen a serious backsliding on human rights, and a discussion of these negative trends dominated the human rights dialogue," Posner, the assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy. "This is an issue where our disagreements are profound."
Although the talks themselves have come under criticism as a way of marginalizing human rights, they are one of the few forums in which U.S. officials can put on the record their concerns about individual cases. Among the names raised were Ai Weiwei, the artist who disappeared April 3, and Teng Biao, a lawyer and professor, who disappeared in February.
"It is most unsettling and disturbing for family and all of us when people simply disappear.... They need to bring them before a court," Posner said.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Thursday that "it's true that the U.S. doesn't have a lot of leverage on these cases."
The Chinese have been sullen about the entire process of discussing human rights with the United States.
"Most Chinese people are disgusted with Western pressure on human rights," the English-language Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, said in an editorial Thursday. As it has frequently in the past, the Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized the U.S. as "interfering in China's internal affairs on the pretext of human rights."
China experts believe that officials in Beijing agreed reluctantly to go through the human rights talks at this time — the 16th such session since the 1990s— for fear they would otherwise jeopardize coming events that are crucial to their economic and political interests.
A "strategic and economic dialogue" is scheduled for next month in Washington, and Vice President Joe Biden is to visit China in July. That in turn will set the stage for a visit to Washington by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, who is tapped to succeed President Hu Jintao.