Prime Seat for Human Rights Watch Director at State Dinner

The Atlantic covers the calculated seating of Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, conveniently close to Chinese ambassador Zhang Yesui, with whom he had previously been unable to secure a meeting:

“To the administration’s credit, I was seated one seat away from him,” recounted Roth … “In the end it was clearly designed so I could have a conversation with the second most important person in the room … He was the main person I wanted to talk to other than Hu and to my surprise I was seated almost near him…. So from my perspective it was an excellent opportunity to have a serious conversation with the Chinese government.” […]

Roth and Zhang were able to have a “substantive conversation” about Liu [Xiaobo], with Roth pressing the Chinese ambassador on why Liu was considered so dangerous a man that he needed to be locked up. A literary critic and political activist, Liu was convicted in a brief 2009 trial of “inciting subversion of state power” for publishing the Charter 08 petition calling for political reforms. He was sentenced to 11 years in state prison.

“The gist of his response,” said Roth, “was that Liu was a much more dangerous man than I appreciated. So I challenged him and I tried to get him to explain that and he offered a somewhat shifting set of explanations.”

“Even if some of his ideas are dumb, that doesn’t make them crimes,” Roth says he replied at one point.

Human Rights Watch published a report earlier this month on China’s National Human Rights Action Plan:

This 67-page report details how despite the Chinese government’s progress in protection of some economic and social rights, it has undermined many of the key goals of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) by tightening restrictions on rights of expression, association, and assembly over the past two years. The report highlights how that rollback of key civil and political rights enabled rather than reduced a host of human rights abuses specifically addressed in the NHRAP.

Roth had expected his invitation to be purely symbolic (and the point made by his seating might have been sharpened further in those terms by leaving an empty chair between him and the ambassador, rather than filling it with the wife of Zhang’s American counterpart). There was no shortage of symbolism contrived to illustrate the relentless official theme of the visit, however. Danwei notes that, according to state media, “in the US China joint statement the word ‘collaboration’ is mentioned 51 times (合作), according to its Chinese translation”: this shone through in the after-dinner entertainment, according to James Fallows, also in The Atlantic:

There was this improbable bit of showmanship: Herbie Hancock and the young Chinese-born, US-trained pianist-phenom Lang Lang, doing a four-hands rendition of a piece by Ravel with a Chinoiserie theme. They enjoyed each other, and embraced when it was done. Again, it doesn’t prove anything, but it was a good choice.

Video via Danwei.