The US told China in top-level talks culminating yesterday that it was hurting itself by stifling dissent, as a top Beijing official dismissed what he called “simple” US views.
In a two-day annual dialogue that opened on Monday, the US voiced concerns about China’s biggest crackdown in years and nudged Beijing to carry out economic reforms, including letting its currency appreciate further.
US Vice President Joe Biden said the US sought cooperation between the world’s two largest economies, but would not shy from criticism. China, alarmed by protests in the Middle East, in recent weeks has rounded up dozens of lawyers, bloggers and other perceived critics.
“We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights,” Biden said, with top Chinese officials at his side. “No relationship that’s real can be built on a false foundation. Where we disagree, it’s important to state it.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton struck a similar tone, saying: “We know over the long arch of history that societies that work toward respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable and successful.”
“That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months,” she said, alluding to the wave of pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world that toppled long-ruling dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.
Clinton and US President Barack Obama, who received the Chinese delegates at the White House, separately raised concerns about human rights behind closed doors, US officials said.
Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan (王岐山), one of two Chinese officials leading the talks, meanwhile said in a rare television interview that Beijing has frequently tried to explain its views on protest movements to the US.
“I don’t think it is possible for events like the Arab Spring to take place in China,” Wang told The Charlie Rose Show on public television.
Wang said that US media offered a limited, distorted picture of China and that Americans are generally drawn first to Europe and secondly to South America.
“It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the Oriental culture,” Wang said.
“The United States is the world’s No. 1 superpower, and the American people, they’re very simple people,” he added.
US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, who has lived throughout Asia and speaks Mandarin, politely disagreed with Wang’s characterization of Americans.
“We took on this huge role in the world well ahead of the understanding of Americans about what’s happening in the world, and that’s changing now,” Geithner said on the same show.
The US last year launched a drive to ramp up the number of students studying in China. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and grew up partly in Indonesia, has fashioned himself as the first Pacific US president.
Despite the disagreements on human rights, US leaders took pains to stress that they had no interest in containing a rapidly growing China.
“A healthy competition, in our view, is good for both of us,” Biden said.
“For many of the world’s pressing problems, it’s a simple fact that when the United States and China are not at the table, the solution to the problem is less possible,” he said.
Tensions have subsided on some key disputes. China has let its yuan appreciate in response to inflation concerns, easing pressure from US lawmakers who accuse Beijing of undervaluing its currency for trade advantage.