WASHINGTON – The United States said Wednesday the human rights situation in China is deteriorating and it is time for its authoritarian government to allow dissent.
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner was speaking after an annual U.S.-China human rights dialogue that ended in Washington on Tuesday.
The closed-door dialogue is a chance to broach Beijing's treatment of democracy activists and religious and ethnic minorities, a perennial sore point in relations with Washington.
But the U.S. has limited leverage with China, which it relies on as its main foreign creditor, and seeks to work with on a gamut of international issues. Also Wednesday, President Barack Obama's top national security advisor completed talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing on North Korea, Iran, the civil strife in Syria and rebalancing the global economy.
Posner, whose portfolio covers democracy, human rights and labor issues, said there is growing frustration among many Chinese people that they don't have the ability to express their differences with the government.
"Our message to the Chinese government is you've made progress on the economic front, this is the moment to open up the space to allow people to dissent, to question government actions and to do so without fear of retribution," he told reporters.
Posner said the U.S. raised with the Chinese dozens of individual cases of those persecuted that included lawyers, bloggers, nongovernment group activists, journalists and religious leaders.
He declined to characterize China's responses. He said the visiting delegation had questioned America's own human rights record, asking about discrimination and prison conditions.
The Chinese delegation was led by Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General for International Organizations and Conferences Chen Xu. China's embassy in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment on the dialogue.
Skeptics, including some in Congress, have questioned whether the formal talks that China holds with Western powers on human rights are useful or may be used to help it fend off critics without taking action.
"A human rights dialogue with the communist regime in Beijing matters for little until the rule of law is genuinely rooted in Chinese soil," said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, hawkish chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Posner said that activists in China, including family members of detainees, want the U.S. to speak in public and private with Beijing, and pointed to growing attention rights issues draw among Chinese on the Internet and in blogs. He said the discussions are now "firmly embedded" in U.S.-China relations and was confident this would "have an effect over time."
The U.S. called for China to allow legal counsel to criminal defendants such as the Chen Kegui, the nephew of dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest and subsequent refuge at the U.S. Embassy triggered a diplomatic crisis in May. Chen Kegui has been charged with attempted homicide for attacking local officials who burst into his father's house.