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."
"We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on those" issues, she said.
Clinton's willingness to break a diplomatic taboo -- generally U.S. officials will claim to seek progress on human rights, even if they may not mean it -- appears to be part of a determined effort by the new administration to clear the linguistic fog of international diplomacy. She noted she had generated headlines this week with remarks on the failure of sanctions to influence the Burmese junta and a possible succession crisis in North Korea.
"I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what is obvious," she said. "Maybe this is unusual because you are supposed to be so careful that you spend hours avoiding stating the obvious. But that is just not productive in my view. It is worthwhile being more straightforward. . . . That's how I see it and that's how I intend to operate."
She said she was "somewhat fascinated" by the reaction to her remarks on the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and whether there was a power struggle underway in Pyongyang. Her comments -- that "there is an increasing amount of pressure because if there is succession, even if it is a peaceful succession, that creates even more uncertainty" -- prompted front-page headlines in the South Korean press and were the central focus of many of the stories written by reporters traveling with her, largely because U.S. officials generally avoid the subject for fear of offending North Korea.
"To me, it is the most obvious issue," Clinton said. "It has been in the news for months. I don't think that it is a forbidden subject to talk about succession in the hermit kingdom."
Clinton said the question of Kim's continued hold on power has to be an important part of any policy review. "You have to be thinking down the road about what, when and where," she said. "Obviously it is a factor, but I don't see it as news."
Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha in Beijing contributed to this report.