The Obama administration faces a delicate balancing act in renewed human rights talks with China: It looks to pressure China to improve its treatment of its citizens while not angering a country that is crucial to U.S. international interests.
The meeting Thursday in Washington also gives the administration a chance to answer criticism that it ignores rights abuses while pushing for Chinese support on Iranian and North Korean nuclear standoffs, climate change and other difficult issues.
This may be a difficult time, however, for the United States to take a tough position in the private talks, which end Friday. The talks, which are resuming after two years, come ahead of a major gathering of top-level U.S. and Chinese officials this month in Beijing that will focus on the countries' intertwined economic and security interests.
"We hope they do more than talk," Sharon Hom, executive director of the advocacy group Human Rights in China, said about this week's meeting. "The U.S. side must send a credible, serious human rights message."
Disagreements over human rights have for years been irritants in U.S.-China relations. This week's talks come as the countries try to repair ties after a rough period. President Barack Obama infuriated China by recently announcing a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing as its own, and by meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader China calls a separatist.
The head of the U.S. side, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner, said in an interview that the United States would not shy away from raising difficult issues.
"The challenge is to find a way to communicate those differences respectfully but directly," Posner said.
He said human rights could not "just be isolated to a few days of discussion every other year, every year; it's part of the broader relationship."
The United States regularly criticizes China for abusing its dissidents, the lawyers who try to defend them and average citizens looking for free access to information. In response, China says the United States is rife with crime, poverty, homelessness and racial discrimination.
Activists have been unhappy with the Obama administration's approach to China's rights record since Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a trip to China in early 2009, said human rights issues should not interfere with improving U.S.-China ties.
Hom said the United States should use the rights dialogue to raise the cases of imprisoned dissidents and, when the talks are finished, both sides should lay out what was discussed and set up benchmarks for ways to get results.
U.S. officials have said they expect to talk about religious freedom, attacks on the legal profession, China's strict Internet controls and individual cases such as Liu Xiaobo, an author-dissident serving an 11-year prison sentence on subversion charges.
Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said China considers the dialogue a useful way to "increase mutual understanding in this important area."
But Wang said that while the cases of Liu and other dissidents might be raised at the meeting, they are "matters of judicial sovereignty, and we believe that any country should handle such cases in accordance with domestic laws."
"No one has been punished just because of his expressions of mind," Wang said.
Posner said officials are determined to get results from the meeting, "not just how do we have a couple days of talks. ... We're very much focused on the next steps coming out of it."
This program aired on May 13, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.