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U.S. rebukes China after human-rights talks in Beijing

BEIJING—A senior U.S. State Department official rebuked China for “serious backsliding” on human rights amid the country’s most severe crackdown on political dissent in more than a decade, and said it has already begun to hurt relations with the U.S.

At the end of two-day talks that were dubbed a “human-rights dialogue,” Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, lamented that the Chinese side had rebuffed U.S. efforts to find out about the status of lawyers, political activists, artists, religious leaders and others caught in a police dragnet in recent weeks.

He said American officials were disappointed at the Chinese response to questions about Ai Weiwei, the artist most famous for helping to design the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium who was detained at Beijing’s airport in April.

“The facts are that things have worsened,” Mr. Posner said. “To the extent that there are serious human-rights problems those problems become an impediment to the relationship.”

Mr. Posner said Chinese officials shared little about Mr. Ai’s status or condition. “On that case we certainly did not get an answer that satisfied,” he said. “There was no sense of comfort from the response or the lack of response.”

The Chinese government says it is investigating Mr. Ai on suspicion of “economic crimes.”

China didn’t respond directly to Mr. Posner’s remarks.

Earlier Thursday, at a regular press briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “We oppose the U.S. interfering in China’s internal affairs on the pretext of human rights.” China had sought a dialogue with the U.S. “on the basis of mutual respect and equality,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

The sharp tone of Mr. Posner’s remarks suggested that human rights could once again become a thorn in relations between the U.S. and China after years in which Washington soft-pedaled the issue as it sought to boost trade and investment and win China’s support on global issues such as Iran’s nuclear threat and the fight against terrorism.

Unrest across the Arab world, which has found an echo in China in online calls for a “Jasmine Revolution,” have spooked Chinese authorities. Diplomats and political analysts predict the chill will continue as China enters a period of heightened political sensitivity ahead of its leadership transition next year.

Internal tensions have already bubbled over into China’s relations with the West, including the U.S., which China holds responsible for fomenting the turmoil in the Middle East. A State Department representative on Thursday complained that China in recent months has snubbed U.S. officials and agencies by canceling meetings, and that this “impedes our stated intention to improve people-to-people ties between our two countries.”

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong, said China has moved recently from “paying lip service” to its international human-rights obligations to deliberately ignoring those obligations altogether.

China has spent heavily over the years to cultivate an image as a benevolent rising power, from buying advertisements in New York’s Times Square to funding a 24-hour TV network for its state news agency, Xinhua. The crackdown now threatens that effort.

“The calculation from the Chinese side is first deference to the judgment of the security imperative,” Mr. Bequelin said.

The crackdown is highlighting strains in the relationship between the world’s two largest economies just as bilateral relations were beginning to mend. Beijing put ties on ice throughout 2010 after Washington announced an arms-sales package to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.

This week’s meetings on human rights sets the stage for a series of high-level talks in the coming months, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, slated to take place in May in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden will visit China this summer ahead of a visit to the U.S. later in the year by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over from Hu Jintao as Communist Party chief next year.

Mr. Posner said the U.S. dominated the conversation this week. U.S. officials also raised the case of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for his role in drafting the petition know as Charter 08, which called for rule of law and open elections, among other demands. Mr. Liu won the Nobel Peace Price in 2010.

Some Western human-rights activists have criticized Washington for taking part in the two-day dialogue, arguing that the U.S. would have sent a stronger message by boycotting it. But U.S. officials say privately they didn’t want to pass on an opportunity to grill Chinese officials on individual cases.

China’s crackdown has most recently targeted churches unsanctioned by the state, which while technically illegal have been widely tolerated in recent years. Dozens of parishioners from the Beijing Shouwang church were detained by police on Easter Sunday as they attempted to hold outdoor services and about 500 were confined to their homes.