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Diplomacy in Action

On-the-Record Briefing on the 19th U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue


Special Briefing
Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
August 13, 2015

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MS TRUDEAU: Great, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to welcome everyone today for a briefing by Assistant Secretary Malinowski who’s served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor since April 2014, after 13 years as the Washington director for Human Rights Watch. Assistant Secretary Malinowski also served as the senior director at the National Security Council at the White House, and he also served with Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and a member of the policy planning staff back here at the Department of State.

Sir, the floor is yours.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Thank you very much. I’m going to start by reading a somewhat lengthy statement, and I want to ask for your patience and forbearance with that. A very important part of this dialogue for us is the ability to read out in some detail to all of you and to your readers exactly the issues that we raised in the dialogue. So I’ll start with that, and then we can have a conversation.

So as you know, this was the 19th round of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue. I led an interagency delegation that included representatives from the White House, the Department of Commerce, Justice, the Environmental Protection Agencies – Agency, and several bureaus here at the State Department. My counterpart was Li Junhua, the director general of the international organization’s department in the Chinese foreign ministry. And the Chinese delegation included representatives from actually a very wide range of Chinese Government agencies.

So let me first emphasize that the Human Rights Dialogue is one forum among many where we discuss these issues. Secretary Kerry and others raise them prominently at the Strategic & Economic Dialogue and the Consultation on People-to-People Exchange. Today’s meetings also help set the stage – and this is very, very important – for the upcoming state visit in September of Chinese President Xi Jinping, where human rights will be very prominently addressed.

The dialogue gave us a chance to convey in advance of that visit the growing sense of alarm in the United States about human rights developments in China and to stress the importance of making specific improvements in keeping with China’s own laws and international commitments.

Let me reiterate what some of my predecessors have also stressed. The Human Rights Dialogue is a chance for us to engage directly with the Chinese Government on human rights in an in-depth manner, focusing on specific issues and specific cases. This is not a venue where we simply agree to disagree, rather it is forum where we need to engage frankly and candidly and to chart a way forward on these important issues if and where possible.

First and foremost, we discussed the Chinese Government’s crackdown on lawyers, which has resulted in over 250 attorneys, activists, and their family members being detained, questioned, interrogated, or held incommunicado. While most have been released, many are still in custody, many reportedly have been denied access to defense counsel. Some have been forced to make televised confessions, actions as we explained today that run contrary to China’s own criminal procedure law. In this context, we called for the immediate release of lawyers still being held and charged with crimes including Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, Li Heping, and Liu Xiaoyuan, among others.

We also discussed other prominent cases of attorneys and legal activists who have been detained or imprisoned for peaceful activities, including Pu Zhiqiang and Gao Zhisheng who was released last year but is still not free to travel or live a normal life.

The Chinese leadership’s recent fourth plenum emphasized ruling the country according to law, but it is hard to have rule of law when lawyers are arrested for defending their clients or when the government equates arguing a case in court with, quote, “creating a disturbance” or “picking a quarrel” – two of the vague offenses under which lawyers and others have been prosecuted. Rule of law means that when there is a conflict between the primacy of the law and the preferences of the state, law takes precedence. In China, the opposite appears increasingly to be the case.

We also pointed out that launching such a widespread attack against the legal profession threatens one of the few conduits Chinese citizens have for peaceful redress of grievances, whether they are concerned about corruption or environmental problems or property rights or any other issue. In China, as in any other country, when legal avenues to resolve grievances are closed, those grievances don’t go away; they build up and the likelihood of social unrest and instability increases.

We also conveyed our deep concern that China’s recently passed and ambiguously worded national security law may be used as a legal facade to justify further crackdowns on peaceful expression. And we discussed pending NGO, counterterrorism, and cyber laws, all of which suffer from similar problems. We are particularly concerned about the expansiveness of the draft NGO law, which I know many of you have written about, which appears to apply to all foreign non-governmental entities, placing them under the authority of China’s ministry of public security, and applying criminal sanctions to ordinary acts that are fundamentally not criminal in character. Enactment of this law in its current form would have profoundly negative effects on the engagement of a wide range of American and other international non-governmental actors in China.

In a related vein, we discussed freedom of expression and the disconnect between a government intent on stopping the flow of ideas in a citizenry that is increasingly well traveled, cosmopolitan, and hungry for information about the world. We noted that many of the activists the Chinese Government has targeted recently, including anticorruption advocate Yang Maodong and the five prominent women’s rights activists detained earlier this year – Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan – are – many of these people are, in fact, working to address challenges that the government itself has pledged to address. In the spirit of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, where governments pledged to both respect the autonomy of and work with civil society, we urge that the charges against these women be dropped and that they be allowed to resume their advocacy.

We also took time to talk about the importance of free discourse both online and offline, and expressed our concern for those imprisoned for peaceful expression, including Liu Xiaobo. We talked about how critical a free media is to the Chinese Government’s – any government’s – efforts to address citizen demands. We pressed for the release of Gao Yu, a 71-year-old journalist who is in poor health. We also highlighted our strong interest in China committing to timely and predictable adjudication of journalist and academic visas and fair and equitable treatment for U.S. news outlets operating in China.

We talked about religious freedom, and in that discussion we raised our concerns about the government’s recent campaign to remove crosses and demolish Christian churches in Zhejiang province and other regions. We noted that the spread of Christianity and other religions and the peaceful advocacy of religious leaders such as Pastor Zhang Shaojie should not be feared; rather, religious belief can be a source of stability and comfort in communities that have gone through changes during China’s rapid modernization.

We also discussed the dangers of conflating terrorism with peaceful expression of dissent or religious belief. In that context, we stressed the importance of genuine dialogue with ethnic minority communities, including in Xinjiang, and the dangers of imprisoning moderate voices there like Ilham Tohti – people who are able to bridge communities and to help decision makers better understand the root causes of grievances in these regions.

Finally, we suggested that China could reduce tensions in Tibetan areas by renewing dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives and by respecting the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhists, like their ability to select reincarnate lamas or to handle the deceased with proper rituals. We also urged greater access to Tibetan areas by diplomats and journalists on the basis of reciprocity.

Now, before I take your questions, I’d like to reiterate we couched all of our discussions in terms of what role China currently plays and will play as a growing player in the international rules-based order. The recent deterioration of the human rights situation and the Chinese Government’s increasing emphasis in its rhetoric and its laws on fighting what it calls, quote, “cultural infiltration and Western influence” raises serious questions about whether China remains on a long-term path towards greater openness and integration with the world or has begun to turn inward. This trend harms the interests of the Chinese people most of all, but given China’s importance and influence, is of great concern to the international community as a whole.

As I mentioned, these policies appear inconsistent with the aspirations of China’s increasingly global, connected, and information-savvy citizenry. If given a choice, I’m confident that the Chinese people would choose to have freedom to express their views and more access to information and the internet, not less; stronger, not weaker protections for lawyers representing them in court; and a larger, not a smaller, say in how decisions that affect their lives are made. The disagreements we have on human rights are between our governments, not between our people, and we will continue to address them in that spirit.

With that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: I’m Chen Weihua from China Daily. I have two questions, one very quick one. Could you talk about how effective is the meeting, what is the mood? I mean, are you guys just bypassing each other in a conversation or you actually solve problem?

And secondly, I mean, how – (inaudible) you talk about the issues you raised – U.S. will raise with Chinese side. What’s the main topic of Chinese for – to the U.S. side today? I mean, like the annual report always say – I mean the recent case – I mean, Sandra Bland, I mean the Ferguson, Michael Brown, all these things – is that – I mean, you worked for Human Rights Watch. I mean, Human Rights Watch every year has a criticism report on the U.S. So is that something the U.S. is also reacting seriously to the Chinese?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Sure. In terms of the mood, it was a very detailed and substantive conversation, and the differences obviously between the two governments are very profound, and I don’t think anybody on either side expected that we would come to the table at a one-day dialogue meeting like this and come away with some sort of breakthrough on issues like the ones that I just discussed.

I think it was a successful meeting in the sense that we were able to convey to the Chinese Government, and I hope they will convey – the delegation that was here will convey to the leadership that the sense of alarm, as I put it, in the United States about these issues is growing and growing at a moment where we are both preparing for a summit meeting that is very, very important to both countries. These issues will feature very prominently in that summit meeting and the – our ability to have a very positive summit of the sort that the Chinese Government and the U.S. Government wants will certainly be affected by our – by the extent to which things get better or worse in the interim.

You also asked what did they – did they raise issues about the situation inside the United States. I made clear at the beginning of the dialogue that we are completely open to that, that this is a two-way street, that the United States is – never claims to be perfect. And in fact, they did raise a couple of issues, although I have to say that the vast majority of the conversation concerned events in China. They raised, for example, the recent incidents of police violence. The Ferguson case was raised briefly, and I actually thought this was quite interesting because they said, “We all saw that on TV,” and my response, without in any way diminishing the seriousness of the problem that we are facing in the United States, was, “Exactly, you saw it on TV because the Chinese state media was able to be in Ferguson and to cover those events nonstop from start to finish.” And the international media does not have that kind of access in China when there is violence, for example, in Tibet or Xinjiang or in other parts of the country. Nor, I would add, did the United States Government arrest the lawyers of Michael Brown or people who took video footage of the police violence.

The recent case of the large – in which the large number of lawyers were arrested actually began in China with a case of alleged police violence in which a man was killed by the police. A person videotaping that incident was arrested. That person’s lawyer was then arrested. And then 159 other lawyers and activists signed a petition on behalf of the lawyer, and they were all arrested.

So I ask the Chinese side to imagine if we handled problems that way here what the reaction would be. So absolutely legitimate to raise concerns about our challenges in the United States, but our response is essentially that we have institutions within the United States that enable people with grievances to seek redress through the law, through the media, through open debate. And it is the weakness of those institutions in China that creates the problems that we spent the vast majority of time in the dialogue discussing.

Start here and we’ll go down.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. My name is Nike Ching with the Voice of America Mandarin Service. Thank you very much. Just some background checking question. So is this the first human right dialogue that you participated in your capacity as assistant secretary?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yes. With China, yes.

QUESTION: Yes. And then – and then other question is last time it happened was in 2013 in Kunming, if my memory is correct. It used to be annually. Was there any reason for not taking place last year?

And also, secondly, I was browsing – reading through the 116 consensus reached in the latest Strategic & Economic Dialogue. I did not see anything on the human right dialogue item, so I just want to make sure this was actually finalized during that talk.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Sure. On the – yes, there was – we did skip a year. This was before my time, so I’m going to use that as my excuse not to go back. I think it is – it is a good thing that we have resumed. As difficult as this conversation is, it is better to have a chance to have a candid and direct exchange of views, especially because we are in the immediate run-up to a very, very important summit. We see this as setting the stage for the presidential meeting.

And then as far as the S&ED, all I can tell you – and this has been read out by Secretary Kerry, by Deputy Secretary Blinken – is that a number of these issues were intensely discussed between the participants in the S&ED. I would say particularly the problems with the NGO law, because they could, if not addressed, have a profound impact on the ability of such a wide range of American institutions and organizations to continue to engage the Chinese people and their Chinese counterparts.

QUESTION: If I may just have a quick follow-up --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Maybe let’s go around, and then if there’s time we can come back.

QUESTION: How do you respond to the notion that you’ve essentially ghettoized human rights concerns by separating them out into this dialogue that happens – I’m sorry, Gardiner Harris with The New York Times.

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you so much.

QUESTION: Okay – that happens now biannually instead of annually, and that the U.S. now has such huge issues to discuss with China – climate change, strategic concerns; obviously, economic issues have played on the front pages of the country over the last couple of days – that the human rights concerns have really been on the back burner and have very little impact on the overall U.S.-China relationship and dialogue. As she pointed out, it wasn’t even in the S&ED. So it wasn’t even in the statement.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well, it was. In was in our statements.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. But it – okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah.

QUESTION: So --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: It was all over our statements.

No, first of all, I’m very much aware of that concern. And it may will be that some in the Chinese Government would prefer that these issues be relegated to a separate human rights dialogue so that they are not discussed in high-level summit meetings, but that’s not the way it’s going to be, because it was a very prominent issue at the S&ED and I can assure you that it will be a very prominent issue at the summit. So our approach is, in fact, exactly the opposite; that he purpose of the Human Rights Dialogue is to set up a discussion at the summit. We’re obviously able to go into some of these things in greater depth when we spend a whole day focused on one issue. And that’s true of our specific dialogues on many issues, including the counterterrorism dialogue that we just held in China.

The purpose is to see how far we can get before the leaders meet to set up that conversation to make sure that in this case that the Chinese side understands very clearly in advance of the summit what our expectations are and what they are likely to hear from President Obama when that time comes.

Sorry.

MS TRUDEAU: If I could just you have you introduce yourself, thank you very much for doing that.

QUESTION: All right. Okay. My name is Diao Haiyang with China News Service. I have a question on the United States ratifying the conventions of the UN on human rights. As far as I know that United States Government hasn’t ratified some basic UN conventions on human rights, such as the rights of a child and the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, something like this. So it’s a little bit confused to me that almost all the countries around the world has ratified the conventions, so what’s your concern on this issue, and are you – do you have any plan to ratify this convention in the future?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: It’s interesting; both China and the United States have signed certain human rights conventions that we have not ratified. And it is the very strong position of the Obama Administration that conventions like CDAW should be ratified. We have urged our Congress over many years to give advice and consent to ratification. We do have separation of powers in the United States and we cannot tell our Congress what to do. In the meantime, we take very seriously our commitment to live up to the goals and aspirations of those conventions, even if we have not ratified them.

China has also signed certain very important conventions like the ICCPR, I believe, which it has not ratified – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And I should think that given the differences in our political systems the Chinese authorities should have an easier time achieving ratification in their legislature of conventions that they are committed to than perhaps we might. But certainly, I hope that both countries will before long have ratified the full range of these treaties and abide by them.

Thanks.

QUESTION: Idrees Ali with Reuters. You talked about the specific steps that might be needed to take – taken before Xi’s visit next month for the sort of summit to be successful, for there to be a positive tone. What are – did you talk about any specific steps that should be taken between now and then that really would make this positive?

And second question to broaden it to the region. You’ve been to Myanmar several times. The political changes that took place overnight – are those going to impact the reforms that are taking place in any way and for the human rights concerns that you guys might have?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: So on China, some of the things I mentioned in my opening remarks. There were a number of cases that we placed on the table, and some of them are old and some of them are relatively new, including the cases involving the detained lawyers. I think it’s probably easier for most countries to address such cases before they get too far down the road in the legal system, and so that’s one reason why we focused very, very strongly on the case of the detained lawyers.

In terms of more structural things, we, as I mentioned, spent a lot of time talking about the NGO law because it’s intrinsically important and because it can affect the relationship simply because of the range of activities that would be affected that ought to be --

QUESTION: So is there an expectation that the law would change before Xi’s visit?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: We have – it would certainly be helpful if the Chinese Government, which has not yet adopted this law – it is a draft law that is open for public comment – were to sit down with the critics of the law in China’s own civil society and in international organizations, and to try to take into account the many comments that have been submitted urging specific revisions in the law – for example, to provisions like the one that places the ministry of public security, the police, in charge of supervising NGOs; provisions that criminalize failure to fill out forms properly, that require NGOs to submit detailed plans of their activities a year in advance – something that is very, very hard for anybody to do, especially when the threat of imprisonment is hanging over them.

So those are some issues. We talked about access for American diplomats. We talked about access for you guys, journalist visas. We talked about visas for American academics, a whole range of actions that the Chinese Government could take to show greater openness to exchange of ideas, exchange of people, and so forth.

QUESTION: If those changes don’t take place, would Xi’s summit be a failure then? Or is there --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I think that these issues, among others – there are, of course, many other important issues we would acknowledge on our agenda. Some of them are also difficult. But these issues – the extent to which we can make progress on these issues or see regression will affect the tone and the substance of a summit that both sides would like to see as a positive event.

QUESTION: And on Myanmar? Sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: On Myanmar? I think you’re referring to the latest, the Shwe Mann situation. I do not want to comment on the internal politics of the USDP Party. That, I think, would be a great mistake.

MS TRUDEAU: Actually, you’ve already had a question. We were going to go around, I believe.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah, let’s make sure that people --

MS TRUDEAU: Sir, are you all set?

QUESTION: Yeah. And from what happened in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in New York and a lot of the other cities, I can see a lot of the frustrations and angers and – among African American people, and they complain about the racial discrimination. (Inaudible) and what kind of measures the U.S. Government are going to take to tackle this kind of racial discrimination?

MS TRUDEAU: Sir, and your outlet?

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m from People’s Daily.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: People’s Daily.

MS TRUDEAU: Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I don’t think I could give you a full answer because I work for the State Department and I would very much encourage you to talk to our Justice Department, to the White House, and to the many different agencies that are working together to try to address those problems.

What I would note, because it’s relevant to our dialogue with China, that as complicated as these problems are in any society, the solution begins with first of all sunshine: the ability to shine a light on the problem, to see what is happening; the ability of the press to report on the problem without interference, without intimidation, without the risk of arrest; the ability of victims of abuse to seek redress through the courts and to have their cases judged independently, and not to have to worry about their lawyers also being punished for representing them; the ability of citizens who have grievances to go out and demonstrate publicly without worrying about being arrested or subjected to violence.

Without those things, it is impossible to have the kind of public debate that forces the government to take the actions it has to take to address the problem. If you have all of those things, it is still a great challenge, as we have seen in the United States and as we acknowledge all of the time. But if you don’t have those basic institutions, then you can’t even begin to address the problem. And so many of our concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, for example, and Tibet are really about the absence of an opportunity for people with grievances to be able to seek redress through all of those institutions.

QUESTION: Secretary, thank you very much for doing this. My name is Wada (inaudible) Mainichi newspaper. I want to ask you about your growing sense of alarm in the United States (inaudible) the human rights situation (inaudible). Do you share that with your allies in East Asia and Japan, (inaudible) other countries? And do you discuss with them what can be done jointly in the United States and those countries to try to improve the situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah. Well, that’s a good question, and I think the simple answer is yes, we do. We do talk about these issues with our friends and allies. We speak directly to the Chinese Government, of course, and we speak about it publicly, so it is natural that we also speak about it and share our concerns with other governments, including those that are closer to the problem.

And I think it is always better when concerns such as these are expressed not just by one country, but by many countries speaking and working together. All of us have an equal duty, we believe, to abide by international human rights standards and to defend those standards when they are threatened anywhere in the world. This is not a problem between the United States and China; it is a problem that exists within a particular country that affects the whole world and that the whole world should be concerned about.

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. Sir, back here.

QUESTION: Thank you for coming. My name is Yoshioka from Japanese Public TV NHK. I just wanted to follow up (inaudible) colleague’s question this dialogue which had been skipped last year. As far as (inaudible) remember, was it the fact of the indictment of the five PLA officials? Because several dialogues has been canceled because after that (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I don’t think so, no.

QUESTION: So do you have any sense that – why has it been skipped?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I don’t want to speculate on why we scheduled particular meetings at a particular time and --

QUESTION: So the United States (inaudible) skip?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: We are very – we like to have the opportunity to discuss these issues face-to-face directly with our Chinese counterparts.

MS TRUDEAU: I’m sorry, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Matthew Pennington from AP. How did the Chinese side respond to your intent that human rights should be a prominent issue in the upcoming summit, that it – and that – how they respond to your desire for those specific improvements would set the tone for the summit? Was there any response to that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I think they took that in, and we will see how they will respond, but there was not a specific response. I think they understand, and in fact, they acknowledged at the start of the meeting this morning that these issues would be discussed in a prominent way at the summit. And we were able, I think, to fill in the details of precisely what would be discussed today.

MS TRUDEAU: Okay. We have time for one more question, the gentleman back here.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Lalit Jha from PTI, Press Trust of India. From your opening remarks, it looks like the Tibetan issue is the last priority when it comes to human rights issues with China. Is that the case? And what is assessment of the human rights situation in Tibet?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I’m sorry, the first part was that the --

QUESTION: Is the Tibetan issue no longer a top priority for you when it comes to China --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Oh, no, no, it’s absolutely a priority, and I mentioned it in my opening statement.

QUESTION: But last in your sentences.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well, last is not least. I used to be a speechwriter, and one of the things we learned is that the most important thing is the first thing you mention and the last thing you mention. So – (laughter).

QUESTION: So what’s your assessment of human rights situation in Tibet?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well, it is – we see tremendous problems in Tibet, and I think – I rarely say this, but I think in this case, probably the best advice I would have to you is to look at our recently released Human Rights Report, which gives the full assessment of the wide range of problems. We were able to discuss some of them but not all of them today.

MS TRUDEAU: I want to thank you all for joining us. As a reminder, this is on the record. We are prioritizing this transcript. We’ll have it out to you as soon as possible. So thank you again for your time and thank you to the assistant secretary.



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