International ties

China, US can both learn on human rights

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-05-09 13:27
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This week in Washington, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attending high-level government talks between China and the US on the subject of human rights. In 2010, Secretary Clinton wrote that "there is a global understanding that no major challenge can be resolved without the active engagement of both the United States and China."

That engagement should follow Chinese President Hu Jintao's exhortation to address "differences on human rights in a spirit of equality and mutual respect."

The talks are a constructive attempt to improve relations between China and the US. The fact that the talks are happening at all, given the wide gap between the two nations on the issue of human rights, is a testament to the countries joint commitment to work out their differences.

The challenge for the participants will be to break through one another's rhetoric and to appreciate the strengths both sides bring to the table.

Up until now, conversations have been largely monologues, with participants more interested in pointing fingers than becoming engaged in profitable discussion.

One hurdle is that the two societies operate very differently. The Chinese government manages and oversees the affairs of its citizenry to a much greater extent than the US. Therefore, when the US. looks at China she sees a lack of freedom that produces specific problems in individual cases.

China wants the US to take a more generalized look at the issue of human rights.

Speaking about the talks being held this week, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai has asked that the US "not devote too much energy to individual cases or cases that involve violations of Chinese laws."

Meanwhile, China looks at the US and sees a society in which many individuals are cast afloat. America has produced gross inequities at home and China questions whether US incursions around the world contribute to the human rights of individuals in those countries or merely take away the ability of those people to determine solutions for themselves.

Both sides, however, must get beyond critiques of one another. If all the US and China do during the human rights dialogues is to throw stones and repeat prior charges the opportunity to advance friendship and cooperation between the two countries will be lost.

Once both the US and China acknowledge systemic differences and agree to tamp down criticisms, they should spend some time in self-examination.

A consequence of each country taking stock of its own behavior will be a recognition that both systems have strengths and weaknesses. Rather than a test of seeing which nation can impose its system and will upon the other, the human rights dialogue should be an opportunity where China and the US listen to and learn from one another.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct law instructor in the Temple University/Tsinghua University LLM program in Beijing.