World and Nation

US envoy says rights in China ‘backslide’

BEIJING — The chief U.S. representative to human rights discussions with China offered a cheerless portrait of those talks after their conclusion Thursday, saying the United States was worried by “a serious backsliding” of freedoms in China and at loggerheads with Beijing officials over many aspects of the issue.

“Our disagreements are profound,” the envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner, said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy here in Beijing, even as he expressed optimism that China’s rights situation would improve over time.

In the two days of talks this week, however, Posner indicated that Chinese officials offered few if any concrete responses to U.S. queries about the conditions of the human rights and legal activists who have been seized or imprisoned by Chinese authorities. And he said that the talks, while “respectful in tone,” were colored with new seriousness on both sides by the perception that disagreements between the nations had widened.

“I don’t think anybody stood up and said, ‘Oh yeah, things have gotten worse,’ except me,” he said. But, he added, “there’s no question that the atmosphere is different, because the facts are different.”

Since imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, Chinese authorities have detained, imprisoned or harassed hundreds of critics, lawyers, bloggers, writers, and other gadflies deemed a threat to the state’s security. The pace of detentions and harassment accelerated markedly this spring after pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East prompted an anonymous online campaign for a “jasmine revolution” in China.

In the discussions, Posner said, U.S. officials raised special concerns about a growing crackdown on lawyers who defend human rights advocates and dissidents. They included Teng Biao, a lawyer and professor who has not been heard from since he vanished in February; Chen Guangcheng, a blind self-taught lawyer and civil rights activist who has been under house arrest since September; and Gao Zhisheng, an internationally recognized rights lawyer who vanished in April 2010 shortly after having been freed from a previous confinement.

The officials also asked the Chinese for information on Ai Weiwei, the artist and social critic who has not been seen since he was seized this month, and Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, an artist and poet who has been held incommunicado in the couple’s apartment since her husband was named a Nobel laureate. And they asked about Xue Feng, an American geologist sentenced to eight years in prison in July on charges of stealing state secrets after he bought a database on China’s oil industry.

Posner did not detail the Chinese response to each case, but his description of the government’s answer to queries about Ai appeared to be the norm.

“On that case,” he said, “we certainly did not get an answer that satisfies. There was no sense, no sense of comfort from the response or the language.”

The annual human rights dialogue, a staple of the diplomatic relationship, has long been a irritation to the Chinese.