Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had some tough words for China today — amid a crackdown on dissent there.
She unveiled the department's 35th annual human-rights report saying the struggle for human rights begins by telling the truth — and in China that means highlighting the plight of political prisoners, who are growing in number.
As he was putting the final touches on this year's human-rights report, the State Department's point person on the issue, Michael Posner, said that China is the country that keeps him awake at night.
"We are having a very rough and bad period in China, without a doubt," he said.
He says there's been a crackdown ever since the Nobel Prize went to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last year, and that crackdown intensified following the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Clinton expressed alarm today about this trend in China.
"Since February, dozens of people including public-interest lawyers, writers, artists, intellectuals and activists have been arbitrarily detained and arrested," she said. "Among them, most recently, was the prominent artist Ai Weiwei, who was taken into custody just this past Sunday."
A Chinese Embassy spokesman, Wang Baodong, rejected the report, calling it an act of interference.
"The report on China's human-rights situation is full of misleading and logically contradictory conclusions and judgments," he said. "We don't think it is the right thing to publish such reports."
He also said that China is investigating Ai Weiwei for economic irregularities. But Posner, who is U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, wasn't buying that.
"They said, 'Oh, this is not a human-rights case; this has nothing to do with human rights,' " he said. "No, it does. This is an individual, a peaceful dissenter, who's been critical of the government. He's a prominent artist and is well-known not only in China but around the world."
The case against Ai Weiwei has prompted other Chinese activists to speak out, including Zhao Lianhai — a father who campaigned for better treatment of his son and other victims of a 2008 tainted-milk scandal. He had been keeping a low profile since he was released from prison late last year, but he broke his silence with a YouTube video this week.
In the video he says: "Recently my heart has felt great pain to see so many friends suffering all sorts of severe persecution and oppression."
Zhao is holding his son, who dozes off toward the end.
"We do not wish to see China become what Libya is today, descending into such fierce conflict," he continues. "We hope rather that Chinese authorities will show greater sincerity of mind, greater consideration for the country, for the Chinese people."
Human-rights groups have complained in the past that the Obama administration was too quiet about abuses in China. Clinton herself downplayed the issue on her first trip to Beijing as secretary of state — and Amnesty International's T. Kumar called that a major mistake.
"That gave the green light to the Chinese government that we can get away, we can do whatever we want including executing political prisoners and the world's superpower would not raise it in a meaningful way," he said.
He says he was glad to hear Clinton change her tone today. Now he's hoping a tougher policy will follow.