China’s Crackdown on Human Rights Sparks Little Outcry in Washington

China’s latest crackdown on dissidents has drawn scant outcry in Washington, with U.S. officials distracted by military intervention in Libya and doubtful that public denunciations will change China’s behavior.

The administration is “scared to death to speak out on very sensitive issues” that might offend China and turn them against U.S. policy on Libya, Rep. Randy Forbes, co-chairman of the Congressional China Caucus, said in an interview yesterday.

On Capitol Hill, likewise, legislators are reluctant to devote energy to an issue that hasn’t grabbed the public’s attention and isn’t tied directly to American jobs or the budget, Forbes, a Virginia Republican, added.

Neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has singled out China for public criticism over the latest wave of arrests, though both have said that they always raise human rights in their private conversations with Chinese officials.

Artist Ai Weiwei, who collaborated on the design for Beijing’s Olympic stadium, is the latest high-profile critic of the Chinese government who was reported detained. He was stopped at Beijing’s airport on April 3 as he prepared to fly to Hong Kong, and his whereabouts since have not been disclosed by Chinese authorities.

‘Deeply Concerned’

Asked about Ai’s detention, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday the U.S. is “deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances,” detentions and convictions of activists in China.

The Delegation of the European Union to China issued a statement today saying its attention had been brought to Ai’s case. The EU is concerned by the “increasing use of arbitrary detention against human rights defenders, lawyers and activists,” according to the e-mailed statement.

The Chinese government’s latest wave of arrests has coincided with a campaign by some dissidents to spark democracy protests similar to those that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East in recent months.

The administration and Congress should “make clear to the Chinese government that this crackdown is unacceptable, wholly in tension with international standards and Chinese law, and will have serious consequences for the bilateral relationship,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog group.

‘Weak And Inconsistent’

Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and one the most outspoken China critics on Capitol Hill, said in an interview that he is appalled by the series of arrests. The Obama administration has been “very, very weak and inconsistent and ineffective on China,” he said.

Wolf said he doesn’t expect much from his colleagues in Congress either, where he said neither party “has the heart to take this issue on” or to press China to change its human rights record by threatening punitive measures on trade or currency.

Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, said he plans to ask U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk tough questions about China at a hearing today.

Total U.S.-China trade totaled an estimated $459 billion in 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. China is the second-largest U.S. trading partner, its third-largest export market, and its biggest source of imports, the CRS said in a Jan. 7 2011 report.

Many Distractions

Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, a policy center in Washington, said the Obama administration is likely distracted by turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, the natural disasters and nuclear crisis in Japan, and the budget battle on Capitol Hill.

Moreover, after “decades of this issue being on the agenda, people in Washington may have greater appreciation of the limitations of what can be accomplished by U.S. actions,” he said.

“By lecturing the Chinese officials, it makes it, if anything, more difficult for them to do anything that might appear to be giving in to American pressure,” Lieberthal said.

China’s leaders govern 1.3 billion people based on “concerns about their own domestic stability” and “they’re not about to change their system because the U.S. tells them to.”

Forbes, founder of the Congressional China Caucus, said he and his colleagues plan to seek a meeting with Chinese ambassador to Washington, Zhang Yesui, to discuss their concerns, though he said there’s little to gain from wielding carrots or sticks as a trade-off for the Chinese government’s behavior on human rights.

“We don’t want to be like little children who say, ‘If you don’t stop doing that, we’re not going to play with you anymore,’” Forbes said. “But we need to be much more willing to step out and make statements when we think those positions are right.”

For Related News and Information:

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.