President Hu Jintao concedes China has a lot to do on human rights, but stresses the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (IMAGE - Nobel Foundation)
Chinese President Hu Jintao's acknowledgement on 19 January 2011 during his state visit to the US that "a lot still needs to be done" in his country over human rights captured the headlines in Western media. But they have been played down in China's own news outlets. President Hu was speaking at a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama after talks at the White House.
Although the meeting between the two presidents was the lead story on the Chinese state-run English-language China Daily website on 20 January 2011, as well as in other official Chinese media, the paper omitted from its account President Hu's remarks on human rights during the news conference.
However, Chinese official news agency Xinhua on 20 January 2011 carried the full text of the US-Chinese joint statement, in which a whole paragraph was devoted to their joint commitment to promote human rights, despite having "significant differences" on the issue.
US-China "Tension" Over Human Rights
Asked during the news conference to justify China's human rights record, President Hu said China "faces many challenges in social and economic development. A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights," the BBC reported.
He added that China had "made enormous progress recognized in the world".
China was willing to continue a conversation about human rights on the basis of "mutual respect and non-interference in China's internal affairs", President Hu added.
At one point the Chinese president did not respond to an American reporter's question about human rights issues, saying later that difficulties in translation and technical equipment caused the error, the BBC noted.
President Obama, for his part, said differences on human rights issues were "occasionally a source of tension" between his country and China.
The Voice of America (VOA) cited President Obama as telling reporters he made clear to President Hu the US position on human rights, including freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and demonstration, and religion.
"Significant Differences" on Rights
In paragraph 7 of the US-Chinese joint statement issued on 19 January 2011, and published in full by China's official Xinhua news agency, the two countries "reiterated their commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, even as they continue to have significant differences on these issues.
"The United States stressed that the promotion of human rights and democracy is an important part of its foreign policy. China stressed that there should be no interference in any country's internal affairs.
"China and the United States underscored that each country and its people have the right to choose their own path, and all countries should respect each other's choice of a development model.
"Addressing differences on human rights in a spirit of equality and mutual respect, as well as promoting and protecting human rights consistent with international instruments, the two sides agreed to hold the next round of the China-U.S. Human Rights Dialogue before the third round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED)."
China's Human Rights Record
The US State Department, in its annual human rights report published in March 2010, said the Chinese government's human rights record "remained poor and worsened in some areas" during 2009. As well as repression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Tibetan areas remained under tight government controls, and the detention and harassment of human rights activists increased.
"Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor," the State Department report added. The government also limited freedom of speech and controlled the internet and internet access.
UK-based Amnesty International's latest assessment said that in China, "serious human rights violations continue to be committed".
"This includes torture, execution (in which China is world leader), excessive use of force in public order policing, repression of dissent and forced repatriation of asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure," Amnesty added.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 11 January 2011 said the Chinese government had "failed to deliver on commitments" in its first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) to protect key civil and political rights over the previous two years.
In a 67-page report, HRW set out how despite the Chinese government's progress in protection of some economic and social rights, "it has undermined many of the key goals of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) by tightening restrictions on rights of expression, association, and assembly over the past two years."
Another US human rights NGO, Washington-based Freedom House, said on its website that "the Chinese government continued in 2009 to demonstrate high levels of insecurity and intolerance regarding citizens’ political activism and demands for human rights protection."
With the set-piece White House news conference now behind them, the Chinese president and his entourage will be relieved that his host President Obama did not mention, nor did any reporter specifically ask about, whether the two leaders had discussed the case of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident and human rights defender who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.