The Obama administration has occasionally been accused of being soft on the issue of human rights in China. But the State Department pulled no punches in criticizing China's ever-worsening behavior on human rights in a new report issued on Friday.
"A negative trend in key areas of the country's human rights record continued, as the government took additional steps to rein in civil society, particularly organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, and increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and to control the press, the Internet, and Internet access," state the China section of the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010.
"Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and increasingly the government resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, ‘soft detention,' and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions. Public interest law firms that took on sensitive cases also continued to face harassment, disbarment of legal staff, and closure."
The criticism comes at a sensitive time. The Chinese government has been clamping down on dissent ever since the wave of democratic uprisings began sweeping the Middle East. On Feb. 20, protestors across the country attempting to hold rallies in support of a "Jasmine revolution" in China were met with crackdowns and a heavy, preemptive security presence. Today, the word "Jasmine" is actually censored as part of China's strict control of the Internet.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out China in her remarks unveiling the report. "In China, we've seen negative trends that are appearing to worsen in the first part of 2011," she said.
Clinton criticized the arrest of artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who disappeared Apr. 3 after being picked up by authorities at the Beijing airport. Clinton also called on China to allow peaceful protests and end its jailing of political critics.
"Such detention is contrary to the rule of law," she said referring to Ai. "And we urge China to release all of those who have been detained for exercising their internationally recognized right to free expression and to respect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all of the citizens of China."
Clinton also announced the launch of a new website to consolidate information about human rights, called humanrights.gov
Assistant secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said that the administration will continue to raise Ai's case with Chinese authorities, as well as the cases of Gao Zhisheng, the Chinese human rights lawyer who disappeared last April, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
"And people in China hear that; they know it; they find that out. It reinforces their own call for freedom, and so we're not going to be shy about these things," Posner said.
The Obama administration had avoided criticism of the Chinese government's human rights practices in order to focus on advancing the broader strategic agenda. But in mid-2010, the administration changed tactics and began to set public red lines for China in areas such as maritime territorial claims -- while voicing more openly concerns about the lack of Chinese political reform.
Today's report carries some of the strongest language to date. It refers to "black jails"; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; detention and harassment of journalists, writers, dissidents, petitioners, and others who sought to peacefully exercise their rights under the law; a lack of due process in judicial proceedings; political control of courts and judges; closed trials; the use of administrative detention; restrictions on freedoms to assemble, practice religion, and travel; failure to protect refugees and asylum-seekers; pressure on other countries to forcibly return citizens to China; intense scrutiny of, and restrictions on, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); discrimination against women, minorities, and persons with disabilities; a coercive birth limitation policy, which in some cases resulted in forced abortion or forced sterilization; trafficking in persons; prohibitions on independent unions and a lack of protection for workers' right to strike and the use of forced labor, including prison labor.
The last line of the introduction is sure to tweak the Chinese government. It read, "Corruption remained endemic."
The report also went into detail about China's suppression of ethnic minorities. "The government continued its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas," the report stated.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell happens to be in Beijing now for previous and unrelated meetings with Chinese officials.