In the early 1990s a number of Western countries, including France, Australia, UK, Switzerland and the United States, sent high level delegations to China. These formal contacts evolved in many cases into bilateral dialogues on human rights. The current generation of bilateral dialogues resumed or were initiated in 1997, at a time when many nations were reviewing their relationship with China and the recent failure of the UN Commission for Human Rights to pass resolutions on China.

China’s dialogue partners are:

  • Australia
  • Brazil (current status uncertain)
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • European Union
  • Germany (to date legal reform)
  • Hungary
  • Japan
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Common Themes:


Generally there are no publicly stated benchmarks and an irregular or non-existent programme of evaluation. Amongst the exceptions are the EU and UK (which lists the same ‘strategic objectives’ as the EU with one or two additions); however neither the UK nor EU have a stated timeframe for the fulfilment of these objectives, and no formal programme of evaluation of the performance of the dialogue against the benchmarks.


Very little transparency of process. Partners are more open about claiming positive results, although it is often hard to link these directly to the dialogues. Some governments try to involve NGOs and report back to NGOs, and a number publish limited information about the content and outcomes of the dialogue process on Ministry websites; others merely state that a process is taking place. The general theme is of a process “behind closed doors.”

China Resolution and International Pressure:

Many dialogue partners have withdrawn from sponsorship or co-sponsorship of China resolutions at UNCHR since their dialogues began. None publicly admit that there is a direct relationship, although the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook explicitly stated that support for a resolution would mean “the end of the dialogue” during a Parliamentary hearing in 2000. However, high level discussions do take place which place the resolution in the context of dialogue and a connection is implied by the EU, due to the timing and content of its General Affairs Council statements each March which refer to the dialogue in reference to its position on China at UNCHR. Diminished international pressure has resulted in the dialogues becoming less substantive.

UN Mechanisms:

Co-operation with other UN mechanisms are included as items for discussion, including ratification of relevant covenants, co-operation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and visits by Special Rapporteurs. It is notable that compliance with these mechanisms do not come into play in considering China resolutions at UNCHR (see above).

Technical Co-operation programmes:

Legal and other technical assistance programmes are becoming an increasingly large component of the bilateral dialogue processes. China is successful at establishing the parameters of these and there are inconsistencies amongst dialogue partners of the standards adopted.

National self-interest:

Many dialogue partners, including most EU member states, have made little secret of the fact that dialogue is more conducive to the enhancement of commercial opportunities than what has been termed “confrontation” with China on human rights. Much publicity was given to the apparent reprisals China unleashed on Denmark, after it sponsored a resolution at the UNCHR in 1997. Since the EU decided to adopt a common position on UNCHR the following year, France, Italy and other members have argued against supporting a resolution, citing dialogue as the reason why; in reality preferring to protect trade deals. The review of the Swiss/China dialogue by Bern University also concluded that there were trade benefits to continuing the process. The US/China dialogue began only after human rights and the renewal of China’s Most Favoured Nation trading status were formally de-linked.

Stated Outcomes and NGO concerns:

Visits permitted:

Stated Outcome: Some visits have taken place, and China is more open to issuing invitations to Special Rapporteurs.

NGO concerns: China has refused to accept the international norms for terms of reference for such visits. The Special Rapporteur on Torture was held up for two years as China attempted to negotiate special terms for his visit. It is worth noting that China specifically listed encouraging visits to Tibet as a key part of its propaganda strategy.

Progress towards signing and ratification of UN covenants:

Stated outcome: China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is making progress on other UN instruments.

NGO concerns: In October 1999 on the signing of the ICCPR an official statement in China Daily read: “It is not that China’s stance or policies on the issue of human rights have changed…..rather that the belated favourable turn in the international atmosphere has created an opportunity for China to elaborate its perspectives…” This demonstrates China?s overall strategy of shaping the norms to meet its own standards.

Political Prisoner releases:

Stated outcome: A number of political prisoners (particularly Tibetans) have been released recently prior to the completion of their sentences.

NGO concerns: Such releases are directly associated with the progress of the US/China relationship rather than the bilateral dialogues, and do not represent substantive change in the human rights environment in China.

Greater openness to discussion on human rights:

Stated outcome: China has accepted that human rights are a legitimate subject for discussion (previously described as “an internal affair” or the imposition of Western values).

NGO concerns: China has co-opted many of the discussions on human rights and realised the expediency of accepting discussions as a trade off for silencing substantive criticism in other fora such as UNCHR.

Greater Co-operation with UN Mechanisms:

Stated outcome: Dialogue encourages China to be more co-operative in other UN mechanisms.

NGO concerns: This type of trade-off undermines the mechanisms of the UN rather than supports them and China remains wholly capable of being disruptive in the Security Council and in the proceedings of the UNCHR if it is criticised. China has also taken the lead in attacking the contribution and role of NGOs in UNCHR and other international fora.

More opportunity to promote Technical Co-operation programmes:

Stated outcome: Dialogue creates an environment in which to promote co-operative and development projects.

NGO concerns: Whilst these programmes have some value, there are key problems and limitations, as follows:

  • They fail to address structural systemic problems in China, such as the non-independence of the judiciary. eg regional training of police officers to alter treatment of prisoners is an important objective, but where the policies concerning the detention or treatment of certain kinds of dissidents are being directed from Beijing, behaviours may not be altered, and such training does not address the reason why that dissident is in custody in the first place.
  • They are designed to address only the formal legal processes, rather than the arbitrary and extra-legal processes (such as re-education through labour) which affect millions of people in China.
  • There is a failure to consult independent NGOs in their design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  • They fail to address underlying values.


1. Adopt Multi-faceted approaches:

In light of the complex challenges faced, we support multi-faceted, integrated bilateral and multi-lateral strategies to promote human rights in China. Dialogues may be part of these strategies, but must not be an obstacle to pursuing other courses of action. We recommend that a high-level Impact Assessment is designed and conducted, to analyse the impact of dialogue on other strategies, and the outcome of such assessments to be made public.

2. Enhance Transparency:

We recommend that the ‘Bern Process’ meetings be formalised and that a website be created to publish information from all bilateral dialogues with China (a useful initial model is the website of the WTO compliance reporting mechanism). The site should include a timetable of meetings and dialogue sessions, reports and a forum for NGO submissions. Such a process should include the technical co-operation projects (taking into consideration NGO’s concerns about their composition and limitations, as detailed under Stated Outcomes and NGO concerns above.)

3. Maintain International pressure:

International pressure has a role in encouraging progress by China. An evaluation conducted by Bern University into the Swiss/China dialogue

concluded: “In the early years China was very much prepared to consider certain messages of the Swiss. However, as the pressure from the international community diminished and other countries took up a Human Rights dialogue in institutionalised talks, the dialogue with Switzerland obviously lost much of its importance to China. The readiness to carry out a genuine dialogue waned.” There must be a commitment to pursuit of additional strategies, in addition to the dialogue and the UNCHR, to put pressure on China. The profile of human rights across the bilateral relationship must be enhanced, to become part of all bilateral or multilateral contacts with China. A commitment must be made that human rights are raised further up the agenda in all bilateral contacts and that time is allocated for robust exchanges at the highest level.

4. Consistency of International Human Rights Standards:

Policies on the human rights situation in China should be part of a consistent, principled approach in which all countries are subject to the same international human rights standards, regardless of such factors as their status in the United Nations or their potential as markets. Nations must not use dialogue as an excuse not to sponsor or actively support a resolution of concern about China at the UNCHR, should an objective analysis of the human rights situation there justify such a course of action. Threats that support for a China resolution would result in the cancellation of the dialogues can be disregarded. The US experience clearly demonstrates that they are not mutually exclusive strategies, and the US willingness to walk away from dialogue and support a resolution at CHR has added a degree of credibility and substance to its China dialogue.

Dialogue-specific Recommendations:

5. Objectives for the dialogues should always be made public, and be linked to a timeframe for compliance by China. The objectives should be specific and should relate to action by China, rather than merely agreements to talk about an issue, provide information or accept visits from partners.

6. All dialogue should strengthen the authority of UN human rights standards and mechanisms rather than undermining them. UN bodies, including the special procedures and the human rights technical assistance programme, should be involved as much as possible in the design and implementation of such programmes (on the basis of the concerns articulated above).

7. A timetable and criteria should be published for regular evaluation of the dialogues. Ideally, such an evaluation should be undertaken by objective, accountable bodies, such as National Parliaments. Regular evaluations should incorporate submissions by NGOs. If, during the course of evaluation of the dialogue the objectives or timeframe for compliance are altered, reasons should be given for doing so.

8. Careful consideration should be given to the composition of the agenda, to minimise overload on thematic issues and ensure that time is given and specific strategies developed to progress ?minority? issues.

9. Dialogues should be conducted by high-level officials on both sides and include Ministerial exchanges. The European Union should create a permanent secretariat to oversee the dialogue and ensure better continuity. This secretariat should be headed by an official at least as senior as the head of the China dialogue team (currently the Director General of the Department for International conferences, Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

10. Dialogue sessions should include independent social groups, experts, scholars, lawyers and other individuals. NGOs should be self-selecting and be guaranteed the right of free expression. Dialogue partners should try to encourage the Chinese government to engage in dialogue domestically, rather than only internationally.

11. Specific criteria should be articulated for the circumstances under which dialogue would be suspended or terminated. The continuation of dialogue at any cost should be abandoned as an operating principle.

12. International coordination is essential. The recent introduction of the ‘Bern process’ has sought to increase information-sharing amongst dialogue partners, but some countries (eg Chile) are not apparently included. Wherever possible, countries should seek to use co-ordinated multilateral approaches to dealing with human rights in China.

Appendix: Summary Of Bilateral Dialogues.

1. Australia/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: started 1991, resumed August 1997.

Frequency: One session a year, alternating between China and Australia.

Duration and Format: Dialogue lasts one day and includes prison visits/police training etc. Also Co-operation projects.

Benchmarks/Evaluation Process: None

Content: Reform of the Chinese legal system, judicial administration and civil freedoms, China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, women’s and children’s rights. Treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs, Falun Gong and members of unregistered Christian churches. Tibet: Negotiations/Dialogue with HHDL, specific political prisoners, cultural and religious freedom.

Transparency: An account of the content of past dialogue sessions is on the Australian Foreign Ministry website.

Stated Outcomes: No specific stated outcomes, mostly concerning the content of the discussion: “The dialogue has matured to a point where no subjects are off limits. Particularly noteworthy was that the Chinese responded on 23 of the 25 individual cases we had raised with them over the previous twelve months. Six had been released at that time, and one further has been released since the dialogue.”

Relationship to UNCHR: Officially there is no connection but Australia has not co-sponsored a China resolution at UNCHR since the dialogue began.

2. Brazil/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue (limited information and current status unclear)

Start Date: 1997

Frequency: At least two rounds

Duration and Format: Issued a joint declaration with China on strengthening human rights exchanges and co-operation

Benchmarks/Evaluation process:



Stated Outcomes:

Relationship to UNCHR: Brazil has previously abstained on China resolutions/no action motions.

3. Canada/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 1997

Frequency: Initially twice a year, more recently once a year. Also one annual plurilateral symposium which is hosted by Canada, China and Norway (funded by Canada and Norway) which gather Norwegian Institute for Human Rights and government officials from 18-21 (it changes year to year) countries to discuss human rights.

Duration and Format: 2-3 days per session. Participation is limited to officials, some academics and local community groups. Co-operation projects also exist.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: None

Content: Freedom of expression, Rights of minorities, Prison conditions, Religious freedoms, Prisoner lists (not submitted each time)

Transparency: Limited information available publicly. No reporting back on responses to prisoner lists or the results of the discussion with NGOs.

Stated Outcomes: None beyond general claim that “human rights in China have improved.”

Relationship to UNCHR: Officially no link but the year the dialogue began was the year in which Canada stopped sponsoring the China resolution at the UNCHR.

4. Chile/China Human Rights Dialogue (No information available at time of writing.)

Officials have indicated they will provide more information on this dialogue at a later date. Chile does not appear to have been invited to participate in the ‘Bern process’. Chile has previously abstained on China resolutions/no action motions.

5. EU/China Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: Launched in 1995, interrupted in Spring 1996 and resumed in November 1997.

Frequency: Twice a year, alternating in Presidency capital and China.

Duration and Format: 1 day per session. Specialist (some academic) seminars are arranged on particular topics such as abolition of the death penalty and ratification of the International Covenants. Workers’ Rights. Practical co-operation projects have been in train for as long as ten years (eg training of lawyers, supporting disabled rights etc)

Content: Timetable for ratification and implementation of International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, encouraging visits (eg High Commissioner for Human Rights/EU Ambassadors/UN Special Rapporteurs) Freedom of religion (Christians/Tibet) Individual political prisoners (usually 10), Legal/prison reform, Prison Management, development of criminal justice system/changes to criminal procedure/corruption, use of Death Penalty, Re-education through labour/non custodial sentencing, Falun Gong. Tibet: negotiation with Dalai Lama for a political solution, Freedom of religion, Individual political prisoners including the 11th Panchen Lama.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: Announced January 2001. No timeframe.

  • ratification and implementation of Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • co-operation with human rights mechanisms (visit by the Rapporteur on Torture, invitation to other Rapporteurs, follow-up to recommendations from conventional mechanisms and recommendations by Rapporteurs, implementation of the agreement with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights);
  • compliance with ECOSOC guarantees for the protection of those sentenced to death and restriction of the cases in which the death penalty can be imposed, in keeping with Article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; provision of statistics on use of the death penalty;
  • reform of administrative detention; introduction of judicial supervision of procedures;
  • respect for the right to a fair and impartial trial and for the rights of the defence;
  • respect for the fundamental rights of all prisoners, including those arrested for membership of the political opposition, unofficial religious movements or other movements, such as the Falun Gong;
  • progress on access to prisoners in Chinese prisons, including in the autonomous regions; constructive response to individual cases raised by the EU;
  • untrammelled exercise of freedom of religion and belief, both public and private;
  • respect for the right to organise;
  • respect for cultural rights and religious freedoms in Tibet and Xinjiang, taking account of the recommendations of the committees of the United Nations Covenants, halt to the “patriotic education” campaign in Tibet, access for an independent delegation to the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has been recognised by the Dalai Lama.

Transparency: GAC statement January 2001 “By making these matters [the benchmarks] public, the European Union wishes to make its human rights policy towards China more transparent and to pave the way for an exchange of information on the subject with civil society. The European Union urges China to contribute to this exchange too.”

Stated Outcomes: General Affairs Council January 2001 claimed the following:

  • Signing of two Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights and of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, visits by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance;
  • A readiness to move forward on questions relating to detention, the legal system and the range of criminal sanctions;
  • Initial reforms along the right lines (reform of the penal code and of the code of criminal procedure).

Relationship to UNCHR: The EU has not co-sponsored a China resolution at UNCHR since dialogue commenced. Since then the EU has failed to co-sponsor resolutions at UNCHR, primarily because China has threatened to cancel the dialogue in that event. A unified policy in Europe has been held up as paramount. It is argued that this ensures a strong position, but the primary concern seems to be that a split Europe would give China ammunition to punish critical countries. The EU has been weakened rather than strengthened by this policy, rendered impotent in the important fora of the UNCHR, its options restricted to an ineffective policy. The Commission’s Progress Report of 2000, [COM(2000) 552 ] stated “the EU has been eager to use multilateral fora to advance the case of human rights in China. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, EU Member States decided not to table or co-sponsor a resolution….at the UNCHR, however in 1999 and again in 2000, the EU Presidency…. expressed serious concerns about the human rights situation in China.”

GAC statement January 2001 “At the same time, the European Union will continue to voice its opinions on the human rights situation in China in appropriate international fora and to raise the issue at meetings with China at all levels.”

6. Germany/China dialogue (currently limited to legal reform, but may be expanded)

Start Date: 1999, in an agreement between Chancellor Schroeder and Zhu Rongji

Frequency: 5 sessions to date

Duration and Format: from German side, dialogue is situated with Ministry of Justice

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: None

Content: includes different themes, eg most recently Rights of Women.

Transparency: No published outcomes

Stated Outcomes: None stated

Relationship to UNCHR: Germany acts with the European Union (see EU)

7. Hungary/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 2000

Frequency: Two sessions have been held in 2000 and 2001. 2002 session postponed because of 16th Party Congress.

Duration and Format: 2 days. In future will be twin-track: MFA to MFA, and between Hungarian and Chinese institutions.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: None

Content: Based on Hungary’s transition to a democracy, focus is on process of establishing “pillars of of democracy, including institutions, law courts and media freedom. Main concern is political freedom (multi-party politics)

Transparency: No published information.

Stated Outcomes: “China reacting positively”. Relationship established with ombudsmen on minority rights and general affairs, who have been invited to China. Has suggested that China put forward candidates for Special Rapporteurs.

Relationship to UNCHR: Hungary allies itself to EU common position (see EU).

8. Japan/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 1997

Frequency: sessions in 1997, 1998 and 2000 (three in total)

Duration and Format: no information available at time of writing.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: no information available at time of writing.

Content: Freedom of expression and religion, minority rights, independence of the Judiciary and Due Process Procedure.

Stated Outcomes:

Transparency: Japan prefers not to attend public discussions on its dialogue but has agreed to meet NGOs privately.

Relationship to UNCHR: “Japan prefers dialogue not enforcement. Our goal is to enhance co-operation.” Japan has previously voted against no-action motions tabled by China to counter a resolution.

9. Norway/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 1997

Frequency: Annual

Duration and Format: China Project, established at Norwegian Institute for Human Rights. Norwegian-Chinese working group which is drawing up a curriculum and textbook for the first university course in human rights to be held in China.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: No information available.

Content: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, labour rights, role of non-governmental organisations, rule of law, criminal procedures, the use of the death penalty, the use of labour camps, ratification of the main UN conventions on human rights etc. Tibet:

Transparency: No information

Stated Outcomes: No information

Relationship to UNCHR: Norway has previously voted against no-action motions tabled by China to counter a resolution.

10. Swiss/China Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 1990

Frequency: unknown

Duration and Format: unknown

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: Switzerland’s criteria for holding a bilateral dialogue process on human rights are:

  • There must be cases of severe human rights violations in the country concerned.
  • The relevant government must be genuinely prepared to participate in open and critical dialogue.

A Bern University review conducted in February 2000 by Dr. Schl”ppi and Dr. K?nzli concluded that continuing the dialogue was justified by the fear that terminating would be a threat to the bilateral relations. “Without exception, everyone agreed that the dialogue has an eminently important domestic policy component: despite the obvious violations of even central principles of Human Rights in China, it justifies the continuation and the expansion of Swiss trade relations with China.”

Content: Penal Law reform, Freedom of Religion, Women’s rights and birth control, Minority rights including Tibet. Switzerland recognises it has one of the largest Tibetan exile community outside of India. Supports the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach. Raised the case of Takna Jigme Sangpo.

Transparency: No information published. The Bern University report has not been made public.

Outcomes: The report concluded that impact of the dialogue is “without exception very low, partly as non-existent”. “Some interviewees voiced the opinion that this dialogue is an empty shell that hasn’t shown any results and doesn’t possess a future.” Relationship to UNCHR: Joined September 2002.

11. UK/China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: 1997 (post handover of Hong Kong)

Frequency: Twice a year. Nine rounds have taken place since 1997.

Duration and Format: 2 days, alternating between UK and China. Visits to prisons and regions, inc N. Ireland and Gansu.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: Same as EU plus an end to the jamming of BBC world service and BBC World website.

Content: Wide-ranging: death penalty, legal reform, religious freedom, re-education through labour, treatment of Falun Gong etc. Tibet: dialogue with Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, freedom of religion and “treatment of monks and nuns.”

Transparency: Information about the content and outcomes of the dialogue is published in the Foreign Office’s Annual Report on Human Rights. NGO consultations and (confidential) report-backs take place.

Stated Outcomes: progress on implementation of rule of law and Chinese engagement with international human rights mechanisms. Specific stated outcomes include invitation to the Special Rapporteur on Torture; renewal of practical co-operation project with UNHCHR, releases of political prisoners. In 2000, Minister John Battle issued a press release claiming agreement for a pro-Tibet Parliamentary Group to visit Tibet as a positive outcome of the dialogue. Relationship to UNCHR: Adopts EU position, but In October 2000 Robin Cook told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee “we have to be open-eyed about this. If we do co-sponsor a resolution it will be the end of the dialogue.”

12. US/China Human Rights Dialogue

Start Date: January 1999 (after a four year suspension). Suspended again in May 1999 after NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Announced that it would resume in late 2000. Two sessions since; in 2001 and December 2002.

Frequency: Sporadic, because of the various suspensions and through choice by the US, because of internal evaluation of progress in human rights and China’s sincerity in seeking to pursue dialogue.

Duration and Format: Government to government meetings, alternating in China and the US. Total of 2-3 days of formal sessions as well as more informal one-on-one or side meetings on particular topics. A wide range of rule of law and democracy promotion programmes supported by the US

government: these are not linked to the dialogue in any way except that they are managed by the same Bureau at the State Department.

Benchmarks/Evaluation process: Dialogue must be “results-oriented” but no published list of benchmarks or objectives.

Content: criminal law and justice; Xinjiang; religious freedom; worker rights; North Koreans in China; family planning: prisoners, religious freedom, torture, cultural destruction. The dialogue is confined to human rights, as the Special Coordinator on Tibet has the portfolio to promote dialogue between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Transparency: No public reporting on dialogue other than press statements (see below). NGO briefings before and after.

Stated Outcomes: December 2002 session described as having made “incremental but unprecedented progress. Chinese officials have acknowledged that their human rights practices fall short of international standards”. Also cited are prisoners’ releases, invitations to UN Special Rapporteurs, invitation to US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a prison labour Memorandum of Understanding. Lorne Craner addressed university students in Xinjiang. Relationship to UNCHR: US policy is that decisions on CHR are made based on the situation on the ground. Practice seems to bear this out although intervening global events have had an impact. The US decision to sponsor a resolution at the 55th UNCHR in 1999 provoked threats but China did not cancel the dialogue at that stage. China cancelled the dialogue in May 1999, in retaliation for the bombing of the Chinese Embassy by N