The United States and China resumed a formal dialogue on human rights on Thursday after a two-year hiatus in which the countries have worked to keep ties stable amid disputes over Tibet, Taiwan, Internet freedom and the value of the yuan currency.
Although the first such talks under the Obama administration follow ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet and an overall deterioration in conditions in China, the Asian nation's growing economic power and international clout make it easier for it to shrug off critics, human rights experts said.
The U.S. State Department said the two-day, closed-door meeting in Washington would address areas including religious rights, rule of law and Internet freedom, an issue that put Google Inc on a collision course with Beijing last year and led the Web search giant to quit the Chinese market.
The dialogue, which was frozen between 2002 and 2008, is expected to include cases of numerous Chinese lawyers and human rights activists who have been detained or harassed by their government, the State Department said.
"Rule of law, religious freedom, freedom of expression, labor rights and other human rights issues of concern will be raised over a two-day period," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"Internet freedom is a dimension of our pursuit of freedom of expression," he said, adding that he was unsure whether the Google issue would be raised but wouldn't be surprised if it did come up.
Google, the world's top Internet search engine, said in January that it was no longer willing to censor Internet search results in China and might pull out of the country partly because of cyber attacks on its corporate infrastructure.
Two months later, Google shut its mainland Chinese-language portal.
A senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Chinese authorities took the issue "very seriously," but had yet to respond specifically to U.S. calls for an open and thorough investigation into the cyber attacks on Google.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. group Human Rights Watch urged the United States to raise specific cases of detained lawyers and activists, as well as to prevent the talks from being "largely a rhetorical shell" as they are seen by much of the rights community.
"Over the past year, the Chinese government has tightened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans, launched attacks on lawyers and human rights defenders, maintained a chokehold on media freedom, and bolstered government surveillance and censoring of Internet communications," the letter to Clinton said.
The Buddhist region of Tibet was roiled by ethnic unrest ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while Muslim Uighurs rioted last year in violence that left nearly 200 people dead.
China "has even obstructed civil society organizations, including groups working with victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake and child victims of the 2008 toxic melamine milk scandal," Human Rights Watch said in the letter.
The plight of activists was underscored anew this week when China's top AIDS activist, former health ministry official Wan Yanhai, fled to the United States with his family, citing pressure from authorities, said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
China's delegation, led by Chen Xu, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Department of International Organizations and Conferences, is being hosted by Mike Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in talks that also involve outside experts.
Complaints about China's rights practices increasingly fall on deaf ears as a booming economy amid a recession in the West has given Beijing confidence and diplomatic muscle at a time of rising nationalism among Chinese, analysts say.
After decades of double digit economic growth, showcased by the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, "the average Chinese citizen today is more well-disposed toward the Chinese government than the average American citizen is toward the American government," said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy.
Richardson of Human Rights Watch acknowledges the unfavorable winds for meaningful rights talks.
"It's absolutely true that they have become even more intransigent on human rights issues over the last couple of years as they are feeling very confident, and there are a lot of debates about whether these dialogues are really a useful exercise," Richardson said.
"But the only people who really win if they don't take place at all are people in the Chinese government."
By Paul Eckert
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed)