Clinton Criticized for Not Trying to Force China's Hand

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 2009

BEIJING, Feb. 20 -- Human rights violations by China cannot block the possibility of significant cooperation between Washington and Beijing on the global economic crisis, climate change and security threats such as North Korea's nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.

"We pretty much know what they are going to say" on human rights issues such as greater freedoms for Tibet, Clinton told reporters traveling with her on a tour of Asia. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere" with dialogue on other crucial topics.

Clinton's remarks elicited sharp condemnation from Amnesty International, which has urged her to move human rights near the top of the U.S.-China agenda. The organization accused Clinton of saying "that human rights will not be a priority in her diplomatic engagement with China" and urged her to "publicly declare that human rights are central to U.S.-China relations before she leaves Beijing."

The Obama administration has high hopes of winning China's cooperation on reducing harmful greenhouse gases, in part through public-private partnerships. Clinton, who is ending her week-long trip with two days in the Chinese capital, is scheduled to visit a thermal power plant Saturday that was developed with General Electric technology. Accompanying her on the trip is Todd Stern, the administration's special envoy for climate change.

Administration officials also want to press China to use its close ties with North Korea to prod the reclusive nation to return to talks on its nuclear program and refrain from testing a long-range missile. On the economic crisis, Clinton wants to coordinate policies in advance of the Group of 20 summit on the global financial crisis in April. Clinton is also bringing proposals to elevate a high-level economic dialogue, currently managed by the Treasury secretary, to a more comprehensive conversation that could be handled by her or even the vice president.

But human rights groups say those goals do not negate the gravity of the abuse allegations they have lodged against Beijing in the past year. Among them: branding as terrorists those who believe that the Xinjiang region in China's west should be more independent, as an excuse to detain and silence them; introducing repressive martial law-type curfews, military patrols and questioning in Tibet; and trying to bully or buy off parents angry about the thousands of children who died when their schools collapsed during last year's earthquake in Sichuan province.

Over the past two months, Chinese police have been aggressively questioning several hundred of the more than 8,000 people who have signed a pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08 that has been circulated on the Internet. At least one man who is thought to have helped write the document -- Liu Xiaobo -- has been detained, prompting an international cry for his release.

The timing of Clinton's comments stung human rights advocates particularly hard because this year will mark two important anniversaries for rights in China: the 50-year anniversary next month of the unsuccessful Tibet uprising, which sent the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile; and the 20-year anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations, which were crushed by the Chinese military. Chinese officials, mindful of the symbolic significance of any memorials, have already begun cracking down on potential dissenters.

"The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues," Amnesty International said in a statement released after media reports of Clinton's remarks. "The Chinese people face a dire situation. . . . Half a million people are currently in labor camps. Women face forced abortion and sterilization as part of China's enforcement of its one-child policy."

Amnesty, along with Human Rights Watch and other organizations, wrote Clinton a letter before her trip urging her to tell Chinese officials that China's relationship with the United States "will depend in part on whether it lives by universally accepted human rights norms." Human Rights Watch, in its own statement Friday, implored Clinton not to separate human rights from the broader agenda.

Clinton said Friday that she was simply being realistic about China's stance on human rights, noting that the Chinese halted the broadcast of a tough speech she gave on women's rights in Beijing 13 years ago, when she was first lady.

"Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues. . . . I have had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders," Clinton said. She said she did not mean to imply "a lesser concern" for human rights but intends to spend more time talking about areas where she senses a breakthrough, possibly including "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company