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WikiLeaks: Mention of human rights boosts blood pressure of Chinese

By Tim Lister, CNN
  • Cables indicate Chinese sensitivity to criticism
  • Exchanges regarding human rights are sharp
  • Chinese say they have different standards

(CNN) -- On the eve of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, China has once again gone on the offensive about human rights. And U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks suggest the issue raises the blood pressure of Chinese officials more than any other, especially when the name of Liu Xiaobo, this year's Nobel winner, comes up.

Complaining about a U.S. Congressional resolution in support of Liu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Thursday that U.S. lawmakers should "stop the wrong words and activity on the Liu Xiaobo issue and change their arrogant and rude attitude. They should show respect to the Chinese people and China's legal sovereignty."

According to diplomatic cables published by the New York Times, those sentiments echo an exchange that took place almost exactly a year ago, when a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to meet Ding Xiaowen, one of its top officials.

"Noting that he would attempt to refrain from 'becoming emotional,' Ding said China wanted to register "its firm opposition to Ambassador Huntsman's letter and to his December 9 meeting with human rights lawyers." (The ambassador had written to the Chinese foreign minister to express concern about the predicament of Liu Xiaobo and other human rights activists.)

Ding was quoted as saying that "certain 'so-called' human rights lawyers and dissidents had sought to advance their 'selfish interests' by attacking the Chinese government. It was inappropriate and unacceptable for the Ambassador to meet with these types of people."

Echoing the ambassador's line, the U.S. diplomat shot back: "The cases of Liu Xiaobo and Huang Qi (another dissident) were clear violations of... internationally recognized norms. While the U.S. was willing to address these issues quietly through diplomatic channels, little progress had been achieved and China had not acknowledged U.S. concerns."

Ding then said that China had a different definition of human rights. "While it was true that there are fundamental rights of religion, speech and assembly," he said, "we must not forget the right of human dignity and the pursuit of happiness." Repeating that human rights cases could be "emotional," Ding said the United States should seek to

understand China's position through dialogue.

That frank exchange was in line with previous diplomatic encounters. Whatever may not have been said in public, successive U.S. ambassadors in Beijing raised Liu's case in private, as in this cable dated December 29, 2008. Ambassador Clark T. Randt "stressed particular concern regarding the well-being of Liu, who remains in custody and called on the Chinese Government to release Liu and cease harassment of all Chinese citizens who peacefully express the desire for internationally recognized fundamental freedoms."

He got a predictable frosty response from the assistant foreign minister, who "disagreed with the U.S. assertions as to what should be done with Liu and any others on the grounds that the only determinant for the correct handling of the matter will be PRC law," referring to the People's Republic of China. Furthermore, "the Chinese Government does not accept outside interference in China's internal affairs."

Another cable shows the great lengths the Chinese authorities went to during the Communist Party Congress in 2007 to manage press coverage. One cable quotes a source as telling the embassy: "During the Congress, CCTV (Chinese state television) would not show images of people crying, regardless of the circumstances. Even nature shows depicting animals stalking and killing prey were cut because such scenes were considered "inharmonious."

The cable notes that the international press were kept busy with side-trips to prevent their reporting on matters of substance. "Some contacts said that the Party Congress media strategy of keeping journalists busy with press conferences and junkets (propaganda officials took foreign journalists to visit the newly constructed National Grand Theater as well as Olympic sites) was effective in terms of managing international coverage."

Party managers had also been careful to keep internet coverage in check. "Popular websites scrubbed their chat rooms of even the most mildly negative or sarcastic postings, several of our interlocutors told us." The cable added that Chinese Internet users conducting searches using Yahoo and Google were redirected to the Chinese search engine Baidu, and that certain Google searches had indeed been rerouted. "For example, typing in "Dalai Lama" would get you immediately rerouted to Baidu, with a message that "there is no information on your request."

The cable concludes that state media coverage of the Congress was so restrictive that many Chinese had just tuned out. "Rather than watch CCTV coverage of the Congress," -------- said, "people can now just switch to one of the 60 other channels available."