Cui picked up the same theme in his press briefing. “On the question of human rights,” Cui said, “ we hope the U.S. side will have a better understanding of the history of human rights in China, what progress we have made and what challenges we still face.”
“It’s quite inevitable for there to be individual cases of violations of human rights in both countries,” Cui said. “So we should look at the overall trend. . . . No one can say they have a perfect human rights situation. There is always room for improvement.”
Ever since the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, human rights has been a thorn in the side of relations that are already full of other challenges. But U.S. presidents frequently try to put the conflict onto a back burner.
When President Richard Nixon first visited China, he turned a blind eye to the Cultural Revolution that was still in progress. In 1994, President Bill Clinton decided to "de-link" human rights and trade so that China could join the World Trade Organization, though the State Department later presented Beijing with a list of prisoners the U.S. thought should be freed.
Even when the United States pays attention to human rights, it must choose which human rights to highlight.
"During the [President George W.] Bush years, religious freedoms were the highest element of the human rights basket," Shambaugh said. But, he added, there are also ethnic rights, workers’ rights, child labor and workplace safety.
"Right now we've got this blind activist capturing everyone's attention, but Tibetans have been immolating themselves for months and there is a complete dragnet around Tibet," Shambaugh said.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution and former senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, said that criticism of Hillary Clinton for her compartmentalized approach was unduly harsh.
"She said we have four baskets of issues," he said. "All of them are tremendously important, and we cannot let one interfere with our ability to pursue the others."
Lieberthal cited the need to work with China to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, stabilize North Korea and ensure that China's trade policies do not harm U.S. jobs and growth.
"The question has been, do you do [discuss rights abuses] publicly or behind closed doors," Shambaugh said. "The Chinese are sensitive because in their culture public criticism is public shaming, losing face. They prefer behind-closed-door approaches and those have, in the past produced results."
Behind-the-scenes outreach by John Kamm, who as a private businessman led his own personal quest to persuade Chinese officials to free political prisoners, often was successful. "So much depends, insofar as China is concerned, on what, at any particular time, are their own motivations for even considering human rights concessions," said Kamm, who now heads the Dui Hua Foundation.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Kamm said, "the conventional wisdom was that the U.S. needed China more than China needed the United States, for the war on terror. . . .Under those circumstances getting concessions would be more difficult than ever.
“But as it turns out, the period after 9/11, insofar as prisoner releases is concerned, was the most productive period since . . . the early 1990s."
Richburg reported from Beijing.