Hopes that the new US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, would raise the subject of human rights — including forced abortions and sterilisation — during a brief visit to China last weekend were dashed when Mrs Clinton told reporters in advance that such issues “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis”. Besides, she said, the dialogue with Beijing on human rights had grown predictable, indicating that she did not expect any change.

On her arrival in Beijing, however, she told a news conference that she and China’s foreign minister would have “frank discussions” on human rights, Tibet, religious freedom and freedom of expression.  If she did, she has kept the results to herself. She did go to church on Sunday. But at a meeting with about 20 handpicked women leaders later in the day, according to the state mouthpiece China Daily, she spoke only in general terms about the need for equality for women and the fact that it had not been achieved in any society “certainly including my own”. The women in turn spoke about progress being made against domestic violence, about women entrepreneurs and gender preference — for boys in the countryside and girls in the cities.

Meanwhile, some Chinese activists were under virtual house arrest for the duration of Mrs Clinton’s visit. Amnesty International blamed her for making the clampdown easier for the Chinese government. “Half a million people are currently in labour camps,” said AI in a statement. “Women face forced abortion and sterilisation as part of China’s enforcement of its one-child policy.” Human Rights Watch said Mrs Clinton’s strategy segregated human rights into a “dead-end dialogue of the deaf”.

Several media reports harked back to 1995 and the UN women’s conference held in Beijing, where Mrs Clinton put in a strong plug for women’s rights, alluding to the one-child policy and making a specific mention of forced sterilisations and abortions. Last year she called for George Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics as a protest against China's policy in Tibet and Darfur.

A week before Mrs Clinton’s visit the London Times’ Hong Kong correspondent, Michael Sheridan, reported: “Abuses of women’s reproductive rights, some of which break China’s own laws, are provoking outrage as Chinese public opinion wakes up to the persistence of forced abortion, compulsory sterilisation and even infanticide.” Sheridan said that although abuses are more widely reported and discussed — especially on the Web — some officials are stepping up such measures. He cited two horrifying stories of babies born alive after forced abortions more or less at the point of birth — and then casually or violently killed; and of a woman, Zhang Kecui, dragged from the street by officials to be sterilised because she had failed to have this operation after her second child. Sheridan said some women activists hoped Mrs Clinton would speak up for them.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet