You are here

Talking Points: December 2 - 16, 2009

Human rights is the focus of this week's USC US-China Institute newsletter, which also features a comprehensive calendar of China-related events across North America.
December 5, 2009

Talking Points

December 2 - 16, 2009


December 10 is the 61st anniversary of the signing of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both the US and China are signatories and in annual reports the two governments highlight areas where the other fails to adhere to the standards set in the declaration [US report, PRC report]. The US emphasizes the restrictions in China on speech and religion and the ability of petitioners to have their grievances heard. In some instances, the US charges, the government does not follow Chinese laws in prosecuting individuals and shutting down organizations. China points to high crime rates, homelessness, and the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities among the poor as evidence of American failure to protect subsistence rights and says the US government invades Americans’ privacy through internet monitoring. The Chinese further argue that the US has infringed on the rights of millions through its wars.

A year ago, 303 Chinese marked the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by issuing “Charter 08” calling for structural reforms to protect the rights of people in China. They began by insisting that all people have rights and that these are not bestowed by and cannot be taken away by the state. They called for power to be divided among branches of government and not monopolized by a single party. Towards those ends they called for creation of an independent judiciary and recognition of rights of assembly and association.

As the anniversary of the Universal Declaration and Charter 08 draws near, one of the Charter 08 authors, Liu Xiaobo, remains in government custody. He’s been held since shortly after the Charter was published. He was formally arrested in June. His wife was recently told by police that they had extended Liu’s investigation period for another two months.

Many analysts say that human rights have been significantly curtailed in China over the past several years. Some felt that this was due to sensitivity over the high profile Olympic Games in 2008 and 2009’s many important anniversaries. Once those events were over, these observers said, there would be a relaxation of restrictions or at least laxer enforcement of them. A cursory review of news stories for the past month shows little sign of this.

-- five Shaanxi house church leaders were sentenced to three to seven years in prison for illegally occupying land and gathering people to disrupt public order.

-- a group of petitioners who contracted AIDS from tainted blood was rounded up in Beijing by agents from Henan, their home province. This was one week ahead of World AIDS Day, an event publicly marked by Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice Premier Li Keqiang.

-- on Nov. 23, Huang Qi, detained since June 2008, received a three year prison

 Huang Qi, 2006 family photo

sentence for illegally possessing state secrets. Huang gathered and shared information about schoolchildren killed in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Long an advocate for forgotten people, in 1998 Huang began collecting and publicizing information about people who had been kidnapped or had disappeared. That led to a charge of inciting subversion, for which he spent two years in prison.

-- during Pres. Obama’s China visit, over forty petitioners and several rights activists in Beijing were detained. Police also cleared away petitioners in Xi’an in advance of PRC Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit there.

-- the plight of dissident and former prisoner Feng Zhenghu has been widely reported. In the spring, Feng left China for medical treatment in Japan. Since then he has been denied reentry to China. He’s in limbo in the Narita Airport international arrival zone.

Some activists, however, see reasons for optimism in developments such as:

-- a court in Liaoning convicted four police officers of torture in the case of a man who had been subjected to electric shocks and who died in their custody. The convicted officers, however, received light sentences of one to two years. Even that punishment was immediately suspended. 

-- two US-China exchanges, the Legal Experts Dialogue and the Human Rights Dialogue are to resume.

-- the PRC State Council issued draft regulations on detention houses on Nov. 9. One regulation requires prompt investigations of deaths of those in custody. On Nov. 11 a national meeting was convened to examine the entire detention management system. Last week, Liaowang Magazine, part of China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, published a story about how local government agents intercept and detain those headed to the National Petition Office, a procedure the article described as gray or semi-legal, but which Human Rights Watch calls a system of black jails.

The attention to such practices may be tied to the Chinese government’s own efforts to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration. On Thursday, Wang Chen, director of the PRC State Council Information Office, delivered a report on China’s progress in implementing its two-year “human rights action plan.” Wang explained the plan emphasized economic development and subsistence rights and said it aims should be fully realized on schedule. Central government investment in infrastructure and housing projects in minority areas was one of the efforts Wang highlighted.

Jiang Tianyong

"Talking about human rights is not a sensitive topic in China any more ... so for a president from the leader of the 'free world', he should talk about it in a big way. Why does it need to be talked about in secret? ... I am very disappointed with him."
     -- Beijing human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, quoted in the Asia Times on Dec. 5, 2009

Jiang is not the only observer to complain that Pres. Obama didn’t publicly say more about human rights concerns during his visit to China. US Amb. Jon Huntsman has suggested that in private Obama did discuss these issues with Chinese leaders. News reports have subsequently reported that Obama specifically asked about Feng Xue, an American citizen born in China. Geologist Xue worked for a Colorado energy firm and has been detained without trial for two years. The Associated Press broke Xue’s story just after Obama left China. Xue bought a commercial database on China’s oil industry and was subsequently accused of “stealing state secrets.” Xue told American authorities that he was tortured, showing them cigarette burns he says were inflicted by his interrogators. Three times Beijing courts have sent the case back to prosecutors asking for more evidence, an indication that the case is both weak and politically sensitive.

Xue’s case highlights challenges for foreigners doing business in China, especially in strategic industries such as oil. The case also focuses attention on how foreigners and their governments can most effectively protect citizens and push for improvements in human rights practices. Xue’s wife wanted to pursue quiet discussions with the Chinese government, but Xue asked American embassy officials to make his situation public. The AP quoted businessman turned human rights activist John Kamm as saying he thought the case would have already been resolved had it received publicity earlier.

The debate on how foreigners and foreign governments can best advance the cause of human rights in China is an old one (click here to see the segment devoted to it in our 2008 documentary). China’s leaders do worry about international opinion and work hard to shape it. In May China sought and won reelection to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. International forums are held, foreign language human rights websites are maintained, government white papers issued (click here to see the latest on ethnic minorities), and the shortcomings of Western nations are highlighted.

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, Beijing, Nov. 16, 2009. White House photo.

Pres. Obama has argued that while human rights concerns can’t be ignored, they are only one element in the US-China relationship. His criticism of America’s anti-terrorist black jails and other practices and his emphasis on “listening” to the views of others and on multilateralism won him fans in China and elsewhere. In May 2009, some 62% of Chinese polled by the Pew Research Center said they counted on him to do the right thing in world affairs. Obama’s approach was perhaps best illustrated in how he responded to a question in Shanghai about internet censorship. Rather than directly condemning how China’s Great Firewall stifles debate, Obama argued that open discussion in the US made him a better leader. Hearing contrarian views helped him refine his own.

Though it is far too early to know if his approach has much impact in China, we are certain to hear more from Obama on human rights. His Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is December 10.


Best wishes,
The USC U.S.-China Institute
Subscribe to Talking Points at:
Support the Institute via the secure USC server:



12/03/2009: Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America, and the Persecution of John S. Service
Davidson Conference Center, Club Room
Cost: Free
4:00PM - 6:00PM
The USC US-China Institute presents a talk and Q&A session with Lynne Joiner on her new book. 

12/03/2009: Successful Aging: An East/West Perspective
MRF 340
University of Southern California, 669 W. 34th St. 90089
Cost: Free
Time: 7:30PM - 9:00PM
A documentary featuring USC School of Social Work students’ trip to Beijing.


12/14-15/2009: China Media Studies & Communication
USC Davidson Conference Center
University of Southern California
Cost: Free
Time: Monday, 2:15-5:45 pm, Tuesday, 8:30 am - noon
International conference features four panels on trends in Chinese media studies.



12/03/2009: Funeral and Sacrifice in 186 BC: The Luozhuang Mausoleum, Shandong
10383 Bunche Hall, UCLA
Cost: Free
Time: 4:00PM - 5:30PM
UCLA Center for Chinese Studies presents a talk by Gao Jixi on ancient Chinese burial traditions. 

12/04/2009: Fiction Reading and Commentaries in Ming/Qing China: Zhang Zhupo's 'Jinpingmei dufa' (How to Read The Plum in the Golden Vase)
UC Berkeley
IEAS Conference Room, 2223 Fulton Street, 6th Floor, Berkeley, CA
Cost: Free
Time: 4:00PM - 6:00PM
UC Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies presents a talk by Wei Shang on Zhang Zhupo’s “How to Read The Plum in the Golden Vase." 

12/06/2009: Family Class: Calligraffiti Family Program: Look, Sketch, Cook!
Pacific Asia Museum
46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Phone: (626) 449-2742
Time: 2:00PM - 4:30PM
The Pacific Asia Museum presents a art workshop that explores the relationships between calligraphy and graffiti.

North America 

12/03/2009: Gao Yaojie: Physician, Grandmother, and Whistleblower in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 628
Washington, DC
Time: 10:00am
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China presents a talk by Dr. Gao Yaojie, who will speak on her work in HIV/AIDs education, prevention, and treatment in China's Henan province. 

12/04/2009: China's Citizen Complaint System: Prospects for Accountability
Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 628
243 Ford House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 226-3766
Time: 2:00PM - 3:30PM
Senator Byron Dorgan, Chairman and Representative Sander Levin, Cochairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China presents a roundtable discussion on China's citizen complaint system. 

12/08/2009: 2009 China Town Hall
China Town Hall
71 West 23rd Street Suite 1901 New York, NY 10010-4102
Phone: (212) 645-9677
Time: 8:00PM
The National Committee on United States-China Relations presents a nationwide webcast by Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

Click here for his June testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He spoke in October on US-China relations (three parts: 1, 2, 3). 


09/11/2009 - 12/05/2009: Pearl of the Snowlands: Buddhist Printing at the Derge Parkhang
The Center for Book and Paper Arts
1104 S. Wabash Avenue, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL 60605
This exhibit will present photographs, interviews and artifacts collected in Derge Parkhang. 


09/18/2009 - 01/09/2010: Imagining China: The View from Europe, 1550-1700
Folger Great Hall

201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003
Cost: Free
Phone: (202) 544-7077
Celebrate the opening of the latest exhibition at Folger Shakespeare Library.

09/17/2009 - 01/17/2010: Calligraffiti: Writing in Contemporary Chinese and Latino Art
Pacific Asia Museum
46 North Los Robles Avenue, Pasadena, California 91101
Phone: (626) 449-2742
Calligraffiti: Writing in Contemporary Chinese and Latino Art addresses issues of power, culture, and universality.  

09/22/2009 - 06/30/2010: China's Great Wall: The Forgotten Story
NYC offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New York, NY
The Forgotten Story is a series of historically-based photographs of the Great Wall of China. It is a collaboration between Jonathan Ball, a California based photographer, and David Spindler, one of the world's foremost experts on Great Wall history.

11/03/2008 - 11/03/2009: Ancient Arts of China: A 5000 Year Legacy
Bowers Museum
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana, California 92706
Bowers Museum presents a collection that portrays the evolution of Chinese technology, art and culture. 

11/15/2008 - 11/15/2009: Masters of Adornment: The Miao People of China
Bowers Museum
2002 North Main Street, Santa Ana, California 92706
The Bowers Museum presents a collection of exquisite textiles and silver jewelry that highlights the beauty and wealth of the Miao peoples of southwest China. 

02/12/2009 - 02/12/2010: Art of Adornment: Tribal Beauty
Bowers Museum
2002 N. Main, Santa Ana, CA
Cost: $5
An exhibit featuring body adornments from indigenous peoples around the world 


Please invite others to subscribe to USCI’s free email newsletter for regular updates on events and programs. We will not share names or email addresses with any other entity. Sign Up.

We provide information about China-related events as a community service. If you would like your event considered for inclusion in the USCI calendar, please click here to submit event details.

If you would like to support USCI by making a donation please visit

USC U.S. – China Institute
3535 S. Figueroa St.
FIG 202
Los Angeles, CA 90089-1262
Tel: 213-821-4382
Fax: 213-821-2382

You have received this e-mail because you have subscribed to receive updates from USCI. If you feel this message has reached you in error or you no longer wish to receive our updates, please click, unsubscribe, and enter "Remove" in the subject line.