Clinton promises frank talks on China's human rights record

Wed, May 2, 2012, 01:00

DISCUSSION OF China’s human rights record will be frank, said Hillary Clinton shortly before she set off on a trip to Beijing, but the US secretary of state was not to be drawn on what her government planned to do about Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident said to be hiding in the US mission in the Chinese capital.

“A constructive relationship includes talking very frankly about those areas where we do not agree, including human rights,” she said.

Mrs Clinton must be hoping that China and the US reach a deal about Mr Chen and his family before she and treasury secretary Timothy Geithner arrive for two days of talks. The planned agenda was to be disputes over currency, trade and market access. Instead, Mr Chen’s daring escape from house arrest will overshadow the talks.

The Sino-US relationship has become the most important in the world, and gone are the days when Washington felt it could make its feelings about Beijing’s activities known with impunity.

These days China is the world’s second largest economy and is matching that economic heft with growing diplomatic muscle. Washington has to be more cautious in its approach to what is now an invaluable trading partner and source of crucial investment in treasury bonds.

In a sign of just how fraught the diplomatic situation is ahead of the annual Sino-US “strategic and economic dialogue”, assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell has been in Beijing working on the Chen case with Chinese officials.

President Barack Obama avoided mentioning the specific case of Mr Chen, instead calling on China to improve its human rights record and suggesting that the two countries’ relationship “will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country”.

Mr Obama must appear strong during an election year in the face of Republican pressure to protect Mr Chen, yet without harming trade relations.

At the same time, Mrs Clinton is unlikely to dodge the issue. There is speculation that Mr Chen and his wife and child will be allowed to leave China, despite their protestations that they want to stay. The 40-year-old, self-taught lawyer, who angered authorities in his Shandong home with his critical research on how the one child policy was used, insists he wants to stay in China and campaign for reform, but it is felt that he might be persuaded otherwise.

Allowing him to go into exile would be a face-saving measure for all concerned. Mr Chen was convicted and jailed for four years in 2006 on trumped-up traffic charges. Since his release in 2010, local authorities have kept him under house arrest, without any charges laid against him, and have assaulted him, his family and numerous visitors.

Beijing also wants a speedy resolution. The Communist Party is getting ready for a leadership transition and it is trying to contain other politically destabilising issues. The central government has always fudged its response to Mr Chen’s situation, but they do have an option to let him go into exile – he is, after all, a free man in theory, even though in practice he is anything but – and allow local authorities to take the heat.