On the last day of his five-day visit to China, Vice President Joe Biden brought up the highly sensitive issue of human rights as he also sought to assure the Chinese about the security of their huge holdings of US dollars. China is the US’s biggest foreign creditor, holding $1 trillion in US debt and, following the downgrading of the US’s AAA credit rating to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s, the Chinese government reacted with angry criticism of the US for its “addiction to debt.” Biden also said that the rise of China as a global power was “a positive development for the US and the world as a whole,” says the BBC.
Biden gave a speech to about 400 people at Sichuan University in Chengdu in the southwest of China and also visited the city of Dujiangyan, where a May 12, 2008 earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter scale left 86,000 dead or missing including thousands of students who died in poorly built schools. A New York Times article about this visit offered pointed, if somewhat veiled, criticism of China for its highly troubling record on human rights abuses.
Biden spoke at Qingchengshan High School which, says China’s official news agency Xinhua, was “flattened” in the earthquake. The New York Times says that the high school was not, though, built with “tofu construction,” the phrase the Chinese use to describe the buildings that collapsed with thousands of children in them. Officials says that 5,335 students died. Following the disaster, the Chinese government also harshly suppressed parents demanding justice in a crackdown that, says the New York Times, was “one of the worst abuses of human rights in recent years.” Some parents who joined peaceful protests in front of government offices were instead taken away by police and arrested:
And parents in China are increasingly asking whether a child’s right to a safe life should be considered a human right, universal to all and somehow guaranteed by the government. Since the collapsed schools first galvanized that sentiment, scare after scare has followed. In the fall of 2008, news spread of a tainted milk scandal — six infants had died and 300,000 had fallen ill — and of the government scramble to buy off or detain angry parents. In the spring of 2010, a series of unrelated school stabbings prompted questions about the ability of officials to ensure security at schools. This year, food safety is a bigger issue than ever before.
“But of course we’re angry,” Tian Wenyao, the mother of a 12-year-old boy who died in the collapse of Xinjian Primary School here in Dujiangyan, said in June 2008. “Who wouldn’t be angry? In the morning, my child said to me, ‘Mama, I’m going to school.’ In the evening, he turned up a corpse.”
World-famous artist Ai Wei Wei — who was only recently released after being held for three months in a small room with two round-the-clock guards some 30 inches away from him — had undertaken one of his “most political projects in recent years” in Dujiangyan, where he led a team of volunteers seeking to compile a list of names of students who had died in the school collapses. Ai also held an exhibition using children’s backpacks — a powerful symbol of the lost children — and traveled in 2009 to Sichuan to support Tan Zuoren. Tan, an advocate of the parents, was on trial for inciting subversion.
The response to Ai’s visit? According to the New York Times, he was beaten by police officers, while Tan was sentenced to three years in prison.
Biden did not mention any of this while speaking in Dujiangyan with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping present.
Inside a classroom, Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi sat in front of a semicircle of 31 students studying English and took questions. Mr. Biden talked about the dedication of his wife, Jill, to teaching (she has worked at community colleges), and he urged one girl to go into that profession. Mr. Xi sat and listened with little expression. But he became animated toward the end of the session, speaking to the children and smiling when he paraphrased a famous line from Mao. “The young people are like the sun in the morning,” Mr. Xi said. “The world belongs to you.”
Xinhua reports that Biden also met in Beijing with President Hu Jintao, top legislator Wu Bangguo and Premier Wen Jiabao. Biden is now on his way to Mongolia.
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Photo of collapsed buildings in Dujiangyan after the 2008 earthquake by treasuresthouhast