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Hopes fade for better human rights under Hu

November 17, 2005

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: November 17 2005

President George W. Bush has signalled ahead of his visit to Beijing on Sunday, when he plans to attend a church service, that the issue of human rights in China – particularly religious freedom – has not disappeared completely from his agenda.

But US officials and analysts in Washington concede that China’s Hu Jintao has presided over a deteriorating human rights record while managing to keep the Bush administration focused on the economic and security aspects of their relationship, as well as benefiting from infighting among exiled Chinese dissidents.

Mickey Spiegel, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who has testified before Congress, said there had been hopes that human rights would improve with Mr Hu as president.

“But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some things are worsening. There is certainly no loosening up” she said, noting new state controls over religious groups, a crackdown on Uighur Muslims, and a tightening of regulations for the media and internet. “There’s a real anxiety in the Communist party over stability. That is a major, major issue.”

Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank sees Mr Hu as a “typical apparatchik. At the same time, he argues, human rights in China are not a priority for the Bush administration.

In private, some US officials admit this is the case. But they say Washington’s reluctance to embrace Mr Hu fully is due in part to his bad press on human rights.

For China’s leadership, the US is a favourite dumping ground for dissidents.
“The moment they land in this country, they start fighting each other with more ferocity than against the Chinese government. Once you are out, you are cut of” says Mr Pei. Divisions within the demoralised dissident community were highlighted this year by the rift within Human Rights in China, a US-based lobby group.

Li Xiaorong of the University of Maryland, one of several board members who quit, says the ruptures mirror familiar power struggles within all exiled communities over personalities, funding and policy. She recalls that those who resigned wanted to shift the focus to helping movements emerging in China and work for change within the system, rather than pursuing a “cold war style of monitoring human rights abuses.”

Back in 1989, Fang Lizhi, now professor of physics at the University of Arizona, was an inspiration to students who led the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. But for a decade he has had little connection with the fractured dissident movement in the US.
“Our influence inside China is very wea” he concedes. He also believes Mr Hu is too weak to implement political reforms, lacking the stature of the previous revolutionary generation.

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