In China talks, trade and human rights don't mix

A policeman stands before posters of activists pasted on a wall, including the late Chinese dissident Li Wangyang (lower L), during a protest in Hong Kong on July 8, 2012. Pro-democracy demonstrators marched on July 8 over the death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, who was jailed for more than 22 years after the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Chinese oil and gas giant CNOOC is about to get even bigger. It's just agreed to buy Canadian oil producer Nexen Inc for more than $15 billion. It's China's biggest overseas oil acquisition ever. Meanwhile, Chinese officials are in Washington this week for an annual discussion about human rights.

But the summit may end up being more about what's not said, as Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: The U.S. and China have had sit-downs on human rights for almost 20 years. When they do, the world's two biggest economies stick to the topic at hand. Trade, currency -- that stuff doesn't come up.

Christopher Johnson: That can poison the environment of a whole set of talks if everything is wrapped under one umbrella.

Christopher Johnson follows China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the two countries' relationship is compartmentalized. And neither side wants it to hinge on human rights.

Johnson: You can't just stop everything solely because you want to have effectiveness in the human rights sector.

By keeping economics out of the conversation, activists say the talks on human rights have no teeth. Concern over Chinese policies and politics is growing in America. There's the blind dissident who recently sought asylum in the U.S. And China vetoing United Nations action in Syria.

Christopher Johnson says the Chinese haven't figured into U.S. politics in a decade.

Johnson: But this year, they're back. And there could be substantial public pressure on the administration to do something about them.

Something like trade restrictions.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.


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