Friday, February 17, 2023

Of Dialogues and Prisoner Lists

 This essay, written by Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm, was originally published in the US-Asia Law Institute's journal USALI Perspectives, Volume 3, Number 16 on February 13, 2023. You can view the original posting here

As China prepares to resume bilateral human rights dialogues, a human rights advocate reflects on their record.

In August 1989, just weeks after the Chinese army opened fire on peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square, the UN Human Rights Commission’s Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed a resolution censoring China. It was the first and last time that China lost a vote at a UN forum over its human rights record.

Since then, Beijing has strenuously lobbied and spent significant resources to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. Instead of multilateral discussions about its treatment of dissidents and minorities in open UN fora, the Chinese government persuaded Western countries to present their criticisms in closed-door, bilateral human rights dialogues. One of the main features of such dialogues was the presentation by the foreign party (and acceptance by the Chinese side) of prisoner lists. As China prepares now to revive its dialogues with some Western governments, it’s worth reflecting on the role that dialogues and prisoner lists have played.  

Switzerland and the United States were the first two countries that China invited to launch these dialogues, which began in 1991. Geneva was home to the Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council), and China hoped to discourage future critical resolutions by lobbying Swiss officials in Geneva and Berne. Geneva also was home to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Access to Chinese prisons by the ICRC has been a key demand of Western governments for decades. 

As for the United States, China was not fazed by the sanctions put in place by the George H.W. Bush administration after Tiananmen, but it was deeply worried by the prospect of Congress revoking its trade privileges, notably its MFN status. To avoid this outcome, Beijing made many concessions to prevent the loss of its trade status, including releasing dozens of political prisoners, agreeing to a memorandum on prison labor in 1992, and initiating numerous bilateral human rights dialogues. 

Throughout the early 1990s, other governments agreed to hold their own bilateral human rights dialogues with China. These included the European Union, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Canada, Australia, and Japan. In addition to periodic human rights dialogues, the United States and China held seven sessions of a legal experts’ dialogue, focusing on rule of law issues. China also held human rights consultations with the Netherlands, New Zealand, and developing countries such as Brazil.

In addition to the submission of prisoner lists, bilateral human rights dialogues featured visits to Chinese and American courts and prisons, and, in rare instances, meetings with representatives of civil society groups. All told, more than 120 sessions of human rights dialogues took place between China and foreign countries between 1991 and 2019, according to my count. 

As time went by, China held fewer and fewer dialogues with foreign governments. It also downgraded the status of officials leading the dialogues, from vice-minister to assistant minister, then to director general, and finally to deputy director general or special representative. According to a senior Chinese official, once China achieved its goals of lifting post-1989 economic sanctions and entering the World Trade Organization, it no longer felt the need to hold human rights dialogues or otherwise make human rights concessions. 

The last governmental dialogue, a session with the European Union, took place in 2019. China  cited various reasons for suspending or cancelling dialogues: with Norway, it was the 2010 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo; with Japan, it was visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by senior Japanese officials.  

However, alarmed by the deterioration of China’s image in the West, Beijing decided in late 2022 to resume human rights dialogues with Western governments. On February 11, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported that the EU and China would hold the 38th session of their human rights dialogue in Brussels at the end of the week of February 13. Beijing has hinted that it is willing to resume its dialogue with Australia.

China suspended the dialogue with the United States on at least three occasions, most recently in 2016 after then-President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama. Then-assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, Tom Malinowski, declared that the dialogue with China had been a waste of time anyway. No efforts have been made to revive it. 

The suspension of both the human rights dialogue and the legal experts’ dialogue that same year were but two of the official US-China dialogues in various issue areas that were done away with immediately before or during the Trump administration. More recently, dialogues with the Biden administration on climate change and narcotics were frozen in the wake of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.

The submission of prisoner lists to the Chinese government was always the most valuable part of rights dialogues. Some of these lists have been very long, containing hundreds of names of individuals subjected to coercive measures in virtually every province and autonomous region. Lists promote transparency and force the Chinese government to focus on specific individuals whose rights have been violated, drawing in ministries and courts responsible for the violations. In response to prisoner lists, over the years the government released information about the location and status of hundreds of political and religious prisoners who had simply dropped into a black hole. 

The lists also have played a role in gaining clemency for political and religious prisoners. According to a survey submitted by the Dui Hua Foundation to Congress in 2005, presence on a prisoner list tripled the chance that a prisoner would be granted clemency. Even when the Chinese government declines to respond to a list, evidence suggests that the inquiry is passed along to ministries and courts, where, occasionally, action is taken.

For the same reasons that it downgraded human rights dialogues, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs increasingly resisted accepting prisoner lists. In one instance, a list was left on the table while the Chinese official leading the dialogue played video games on a cell phone. No written responses to prisoner lists submitted by governments have been recorded since 2012.

Matters came to a head at the 18th session of the US-China dialogue in Kunming in July 2013. The leader of the Chinese side refused to accept the US list. Only after intense pressure from the US side was the list begrudgingly accepted. The director general who led the Chinese side made clear that this would be the last time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted a prisoner list from a foreign government.

While governments have been unable to hand over lists, my organization, the Dui Hua Foundation (whose name means “dialogue” in Chinese), has been able to submit lists continuously since it was established in 1999. By the end of December 2022, Dui Hua had handed over 463 lists containing altogether more than 2000 “unique” names of prisoners (“unique” means names are only counted once; it is not uncommon for a name to appear on dozens of Dui Hua lists). Interlocutors responded on 282 occasions, providing information on more than 1,000 unique names. In 2022, Dui Hua submitted 21 lists, received 27 responses, and learned of instances of clemency or better treatment for 22 names on its lists.

The degradation of human rights dialogues that intensified after Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012 is not the only blow to judicial transparency during the strongman’s reign. In June 2021, China’s Supreme People’s Court purged all cases involving state security, “cults,” and death sentences from its judgment website. Crafting prisoner lists has become increasingly difficult for Dui Hua, but it has found new sources and new channels to continue submitting lists and getting responses.

Experience tells us that dialogues cannot immediately solve China’s human rights problems, but they can increase transparency. Prisoner lists in particular have benefited prisoners and their families, and should be part of any resumed dialogues.  Dui Hua, which remains committed to a mutually respectful dialogue with the Chinese government, plans to continue submitting lists for as long as it is able to do so. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Polls Suggest Stormy Waters for Biden, US-China Relations

US President Joe Biden delivering the 2023 State of the Union Address on January 7, 2023 with Vice President Harris and House Speaker McCarthy seated behind him. Image credit: Public Domain 

Polling from the start of 2023 suggests that China is increasingly unpopular in the United States as well as in other regions. A majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the Biden administration’s handling of the US-China relationship.  

“Stable but Underwater” 

Approval ratings for Biden as president are hovering in the 40s, a modest increase from the lows of summer 2022. As per the Harvard/Harris poll from January 18-19: “Biden’s approval is stable but underwater.” That poll of 2,050 registered voters showed 56 percent disapproval for Biden’s job as president, against 42 percent that approve. Rasmussen’s poll from February 2-6 of 1,500 likely voters pegged Biden’s approval at 44 percent, with 54 percent disapproval. Among a Economist/YouGov poll from February 4-7 of 1,500 registered voters, 41 percent approval versus 50 percent disapproval. A CBS News Poll taken from February 1-4 of 2,030 adults found that 45 percent approve of Biden’s job as president compared to 55 percent who disapprove.  

Biden’s approval rating did surpass his disapproval rating in one poll, the IBD/TIPP poll which found 46 percent approval among Americans, compared to 44 percent disapproval. However, the poll noted that “Biden’s improvement is strictly among self-described investors and higher earners.” 

Biden’s handling of classified documents has also damaged optics around his presidency. The YouGov poll found that 34 percent said that Biden was trustworthy against 46 percent that said he wasn’t (20 percent answered “not sure”). An NBC News poll of 810 registered voters from January 20-24 found that 67 percent of those polled are concerned about the handling of classified documents by both Biden and Trump. The classified documents scandal is likely to play into the hands of China hawks who view Biden as either soft on China or benefiting financially from ties to the CCP. In the Harvard/Harris poll, 83 percent of voters supported an FBI investigation into Biden’s handling of the documents, and 66 percent said that Biden’s dealings with the University of Pennsylvania raise questions that should be investigated. 

Biden’s handling of China also reflects a lack of confidence among Americans. Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ January 19 poll found that 39 percent of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of relations with China, compared to 29 percent who expressed some form of approval (24 percent neither approved or disapproved). In the CBS News Poll, 61 percent disapproved of the way Biden is handling issues with China, compared to 39 percent that approved. 

Similar attitudes abound for Biden’s handling of foreign policy. The Quinnipiac Poll shows 38 percent approval to 54 percent disapproval. The January 29-31 Economist/YouGov poll puts it as 31 percent approval to 53 percent disapproval. The NBC News poll found 41 percent approval to 50 percent disapproval. Across two polls, one from January 28-29 and the other from February 4-5, Morning Consult found that Biden’s foreign policy approval rates remained above 40 percent “while approval of his handling of national security rose from 42 percent to 45 percent during that time period.” 

Friends & Enemies

Negative views of China have persisted into 2023. In the Harvard Harris poll, 66 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of China. A YouGov/Economist poll from February 4-7 found 13 percent view China as a friend or ally versus 72 percent that answered unfriendly or an enemy. That poll also asked about attitudes toward Taiwan, of which respondents had a much more positive view: 61 percent see Taiwan as a friend or ally compared to 10 percent that see it as unfriendly or an enemy and 29 percent that were unsure. A majority of respondents, 74 percent, said that the US government made the right decision to shoot down the Chinese balloon, and 60 percent rejected China’s explanation that it was a weather balloon blown off course.  

Morning Consult’s US-China Relations Barometer currently holds that 62 percent of US respondents have an unfavorable view of China, with 14 percent favorable. Chinese perceptions of the United States are similar: 69 percent unfavorable to 20 percent favorable; however, the share of Chinese adults with unfavorable views of the United States has declined since November 2022. Across Central and Eastern Europe, a survey of 13 countries by the International Republican Institute found worsening approval for China across all 13 countries, and 34 percent of respondents reported increasingly negative views of China in the past year. Of those, 66 percent cited China’s support for Russia as the main factor.  

While China is expected to play a large part of Congress’ foreign policy agenda in the 118th Congress, Morning Consult’s US Foreign Policy Tracker suggests that voters’ concerns are split. US-China relations are not a top issue, with only 27 percent of respondents ranking it as the biggest concern, while protecting human rights globally came in at 25 percent. Upholding democracy globally ranked the lowest, at 14 percent. The biggest foreign policy concerns were terrorism, followed by immigration, cyberattacks, drug trafficking, and climate change. 

However, Republicans express much more concern for US-China relations, with 31 percent citing it as the most important issue. On a list of Republican foreign policy concerns, US-China relations ranked fifth out of 14; for Democrats, it ranked 12th out of 14 issues, with 23 percent citing it as the most important issue. Partisan preference switched when it came to support for Ukraine: 16 percent of Republicans cited it as the most important issue while 32 percent of Democrats said it was the most important issue.  

Unfavorable opinions abound, but a December 2022 Rasmussen Reports poll suggests that Americans believe their biggest enemy is domestic. When asked  “Who is America's biggest enemy as 2022 draws to a close - Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Republicans, or Democrats?” as The Hill reported, “nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t choose a foreign power but name a domestic political party.”  

Source: Rasmussen Reports

Biden’s China policy, which has largely followed that of the Trump administration, has drawn criticism for being more reactive than proactive. In recent weeks, this approach has been publicly criticized by high-profile figures. Former Trump-era national security advisor John Bolton authored an article for The Hill asking, “When will Biden get tough with China?”, and former treasury secretary Henry Paulson declared “America’s China Policy Is Not Working” in Foreign Affairs. A divided Congress, a divided populace, and a president lacking in approval are all reckoning with the future of US-China relations, with little other than “hawkism” uniting them.