At Beijing's airport in 1997, Wei Jingsheng ate with his family, and was told his brutal choice: leave China forever, or go back to prison. Nearly thirteen years later, he sat outside a swank restaurant in suburban Virginia, chain-smoking Gauloises cigarettes and drinking red wine. Just a few miles away, in Washington, DC, a Chinese delegation headed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Chen Xu was wrapping up the first day of a formal dialogue with US counterparts, about human rights. Wei, one of the most prominent Chinese democracy advocates, says he owes his freedom to international pressure in support of human rights, especially from American leaders. Now disgruntled with the US engagement with China, he's a reminder of both the high stakes and the shortcomings of the exercise. 'There's no substance to the human rights dialogue,' said Wei, speaking in Mandarin with a strong Beijing accent. He never learned English, and a younger activist named Li Hongkuan bridges the gap with a reporter's broken Chinese. Li made his name in the US-based dissident community by spamming pro-democracy messages to early internet users in China. On May 13 and 14, US officials led by assistant secretary of state Michael Posner met with the Chinese delegation behind closed doors in Washington. The dialogue was the first since May 2008 and since President Barack Obama took office. At a time when the US relies on China as a crucial trade partner, and a necessary ally on issues like climate change and nuclear security, the Obama administration has come under fire from critics at home and abroad for putting concerns over human rights in China in the back seat. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised hackles last year when she said the administration would not let human rights issues interfere with more pressing matters. American officials insist they have been misunderstood, and are simply approaching their Chinese counterparts with an appropriate degree of respect and maturity. Posner painted the dialogue as a two-way conversation about issues of mutual interest to the two countries. 'We didn't tell China anything,' Posner said at a briefing following the dialogue. 'The tone of the discussion was very much ... we're two powerful, great countries, and we have a range of issues that we are engaged with. Human rights is part of that discussion, and it's going to remain so.' Posner said little about individual cases raised during the dialogue, except to note that the US side brought up imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo and criminal defence lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who is missing and presumed to be held by Chinese authorities. The Chinese delegation took some time off for a field trip of sorts through American democracy. They visited the US Supreme Court, Posner noted, where former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke about the importance of lawyers and the rule of law in American society; they heard about collective bargaining from the federal agency that handles labour disputes; and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, they listened to a panel discuss problems with food inspection and safety issues in the US, and asked questions about the civil justice system. 'There was an effort to find topics that are of genuine concern to both countries,' said Thomas Carothers, vice-president of studies at Carnegie, who hosted the panel and has written about the backlash against heavy-handed Bush administration efforts to promote democracy. 'So it's not just us beating up on them.' It's hard to know whether the Chinese side appreciated the effort, or what they hoped to achieve through the talks. Officials made no public statements following the talks, and did not respond to calls for comment. Ahead of the talks, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said only that the two sides would exchange views on human rights achievements, multilateral co-operation on human rights and other human rights issues of common interest. 'We are ready to have dialogue and communication with the US side on human rights on the basis of equality and mutual respect,' he said. Whether US engagement with China on human rights issues - respectful or not - will actually lead to changes in rule of law, labour rights, religious freedoms, or other issues raised during the dialogue is an open question. It is one that has been asked many times before. Wei, for one, doubts there will be change. He blames US capitulation to multi-national corporations for a softening in American leaders' rhetoric towards their Chinese counterparts in recent decades. 'Do they think China will imprison fewer people if there isn't international pressure?' he asks. 'No, they will imprison more people.' The tone was less conciliatory in 1997, he recalls, when former US President Bill Clinton publicly chided President Jiang Zemin, saying that Chinese policies were 'on the wrong side of history'. By then, Wei had been in prison for the better part of two decades, first jailed for criticising Deng Xiaoping during the 1978 Democracy Wall movement. His sentence promised to keep him captive until the end of last year. He learned in prison that Clinton had protested on his behalf. A survivor, Wei had befriended his captors. It was the prison guards who whispered to him in the courtyard that there was an international campaign for his release. It was also they who told him in the autumn of 1997 that he should prepare to be freed. High-profile prisoner releases were a feature of negotiations with the US in the '90s and the early part of the past decade: Wei was followed by Wang Dan in 1998, Gao Yu in 1999 (and again in 2000), Xu Wenli in 2002, and Rebiya Kadeer in 2005. And it was not only the most prominent prisoners who benefited. Political prisoners on an American list given to Chinese authorities in 2001, for instance, enjoyed triple the rate of early releases than others who were not on that list, said John Kamm, who heads the Dui Hua Foundation, at a US congressional commission hearing last year. Dui Hua is a non-profit group that advises the State Department on political prisoners in China. Lorne Craner was assistant secretary of state during the early part of the George W. Bush administration, and led the US-China human rights dialogue in 2001 and 2002. He believes he had an easier time than his predecessors or successors, both in convincing China to release individual prisoners, and in engaging officials on systemic concerns like civil rights and democracy. 'I had two things in my favour,' says Craner, now president of the International Republican Institute in Washington. 'One was that the Chinese were less confident than they now are in their strategic status. And the second was that I had the backing of a president that was very committed on these issues.' But around the time that President Hu Jintao took office, says Craner, he began to feel that China was losing interest in winning points with the US in this manner. In the latter half of 2003 and in 2004, he said, 'co-operation was diminished, and I decided not to have another dialogue.' US credibility on human rights took a crippling hit, some critics contend, from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by accounts of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and ongoing legal questions about the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Others question whether prisoner releases, which coincided with Chinese efforts to win accession to the World Trade Organisation and to deter UN resolutions condemning its human rights record, were ever a sign of improvement. Sharon Hom, head of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China, likens them to hostage releases, used as bargaining chips by the Chinese government. 'Those releases are very important from the perspective of the individual; it's better to be released than to rot in prison,' says Hom. 'But whether those releases will promote the kind of systemic changes in human rights in China is another issue.' Too many of the prisoners released, she says, find that their employment opportunities in China are severely curtailed, and their families are subject to harassment. Others exiled in the US struggle to learn English, and find themselves lost in a foreign culture, isolated from meaningful political activity. All releases come with conditions, and often with stern warnings from the Chinese government. 'I was told I'd be paroled to the US on a medical basis,' says Rebiya Kadeer, a former political prisoner who settled in the Washington area. 'During my medical parole, I shouldn't get involved in any activities which hurt the interest of China, such as exposing the systematic repression of the Uyghur people. If I get involved in any such activities, I was told to never forget that I will leave my five children, nine grandchildren, and all my properties and hard-earned money behind because the authorities will finish them.' She disregarded the warnings, and became a singularly prominent voice for Uyghur rights, at no small cost to herself and her family. Several of her children have been jailed. Systemic results from the past three decades of US engagement with China on human rights are much harder to gauge, says Hom, without Chinese government transparency. The expansive state secrets law and a culture of official secrecy make it hard to assess almost every issue that's been raised in these talks: the treatment of religious minorities, rule of law, and labour rights. Still, after the talks concluded on May 14, Hom said she was 'cautiously optimistic' about the benchmarks set for the coming months. The US and China agreed to an exchange of legal experts to continue discussions about rule of law, and Posner pledged that the US would continue raising human rights concerns through all aspects of government engagement. The two nations agreed to meet again for the next session of the human rights dialogue next year. Wei does not share her hopes. He tried to contact the US State Department ahead of the talks, he says, but received no response. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Human Rights, Labor and Democracy said she knew of no dissidents who tried to contact the office. 'When they want to quarrel with China, they discuss it with me,' said Wei, of the US government. 'When they don't, they don't talk to me.' Wei celebrates his 60th birthday this year, and plans to have a barbeque. He doesn't regret his decision to leave China. 'I would have died in prison,' he says. He, too, ignored conditions of his release on medical parole; he was never to leave the hospital, for instance, or to speak with the press. Now, he is a paid commentator on US-funded Radio Free Asia, which broadcasts short-wave radio into China. He sees his role as unifying and strengthening the pro-democracy movement abroad. But he is dissatisfied with meagre financial support he has received from the American government and business community. He has made tentative inroads into American society. Lately, he has taken up deer hunting with friends he calls hong bozi - a Mandarin translation of American slang: Rednecks. 'They don't speak Chinese, but that's one great thing about hunting,' he says: 'Nobody talks.'