Why aren't human rights activists who work on China more enthusiastic about the upcoming meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials on the critical topic of human rights? The discussions, to begin in Washington on May 13, are the first human rights dialogue between the two countries since May 2008 and the first to be hosted by President Barack Obama's administration. Yet expectations that the meetings will produce any meaningful change, or even a clear set of goals, are remarkably low.
It's of course natural to have low hopes for a human rights dialogue with China, given how bad its record on the issue is. In the last month alone, we've observed two important nongovernmental organizations paralyzed by government interference. The Women's Legal Research and Services Center, China's leading women's legal rights organization, was abruptly deregistered by Beijing University, leaving it in legal limbo. And Wan Yanhai, one of China's most prominent HIV/AIDS activists, went into self-exile in the United States last weekend, stating sensibly enough, "It was no fun waiting to be attacked by government agencies all the time."
As part of a continuing attack on rights lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei joined the growing ranks of lawyers stripped of their licenses for daring to take on "sensitive" cases, further emasculating China's fledgling "rights protection" movement. And Gao Zhisheng, another courageous activist who chose to take the government at its word and tried to make use of the legal system to redress common grievances, has been disappeared -- for a second time.
But the problem isn't just China -- it's also the way the talks are structured. The dialogue process lacks meaningful benchmarks for progress, or consequences for failing to improve the situation. The Chinese government doesn't send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock.