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Hillary Clinton's Silence on Chinese Human Rights

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

HILLARY RODHAM Clinton says she was only "stating the obvious" when she played down the importance of U.S. pressure on China about human rights issues during a visit there over the weekend. In fact, her comments understated the significance of what a secretary of state says about such matters, and how those statements might affect the lives of people fighting for freedom of expression, religious rights and other basic liberties in countries such as China.

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When reporters asked whether she intended to raise human rights questions during her first visit to Beijing as a Cabinet secretary, Ms. Clinton affected a world-weary air. "We know what they are going to say because I've had those kinds of conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders," she said. "We have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

No doubt there is a predictable rhythm both to U.S. protests and to Beijing's responses. That hardly makes them unimportant. By publicly stating its objection to the imprisonment of peaceful dissidents or the crushing of opposition in places such as Tibet, the United States reinforces the principle that such practices are unacceptable anywhere in the world. It gives hope to those who are bravely fighting for change and causes average Chinese to question their government. It also can produce results -- as has been demonstrated time and again when Chinese political prisoners have been released thanks to American pressure.

Ms. Clinton's suggestion that U.S. advocacy for human rights might "interfere" with cooperation on other issues is equally misguided. Over many years China has proved ready to work with the United States on issues where it sees an interest in doing so, regardless of disputes over human rights. Playing down those concerns won't change Beijing's stance on North Korea or increase its willingness to reduce carbon emissions. But it will cause the regime to feel less restrained in cracking down on movements such as the newly formed Charter 08, whose manifesto in favor of democratic change has been signed by more than 8,000 Chinese from all walks of life.

Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic suspected of helping to organize the charter, was jailed shortly after its release in December and remains in prison. If Ms. Clinton had publicly praised his movement and called for his release, Beijing might have shrugged -- but average Chinese would have taken note. Instead she sent Mr. Liu a message: He can't be allowed to "interfere" with appeals to China to buy more U.S. Treasury bonds or build fewer coal plants. Ms. Clinton's statement won't have the slightest effect on such matters; China will make decisions about coal plants on the merits as it sees them. But Ms. Clinton's statement will have an effect: It will demoralize thousands of democracy advocates in China, and it will cause many others around the world to wonder about the character of the new U.S. administration.

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