Ahead of visit by China's Hu, Obama meets with advocates for human rights

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 10:10 PM

President Obama met for more than an hour Thursday at the White House with five advocates for greater civil liberties and human rights in China, just days before Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival in Washington for a state visit.

The meeting - which lasted 75 minutes in the Roosevelt Room - was part of Obama's preparation for his meetings with the Chinese leader, two senior administration officials said.

It was the first time Obama has met with advocates for human rights in China at the White House.

In a September address at the U.N. General Assembly, the president emphasized the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. But the administration has been cautious in raising the issue publicly with China, which has traditionally reacted harshly to criticism of its rights record.

On Thursday, Obama questioned the advocates - three of whom were born in China - about how, in the words of one administration official, "the arbitrary exercise of power is felt in the everyday lives of the Chinese people." Obama recalled his own childhood in Indonesia, then governed by dictatorship.

"One thing he kept coming back to was, how does the omnipresence of the state, how does corruption, affect the lives of real people," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And he asked how we should use our leverage. Where should we use our leverage?"

"There was a lot of talk about how to reach into China to be heard," the official continued. "He was very, very interested in that."

While economic and security issues are likely to be the focus of much of Hu's visit, how Obama manages the topic of human rights will likely help define the summit and provide clues to how the president intends to speak about the contentious subject with China in the years ahead.

By hosting Hu, who arrives Wednesday, Obama will achieve the distinction of becoming the first U.S. president to host a head of state who is currently holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in prison.

The Chinese writer and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was awarded the prize in October, and it was presented to his empty chair in Oslo two months later. Obama, who won the prize the previous year, "welcomed" the Nobel Committee's decision to award the prize to Liu. China condemned it.

At their summit, Obama and Hu are expected to announce the resumption of the U.S.-China "human rights dialogue" after a roughly half-year hiatus. The forum allows U.S. officials to raise with the Chinese government concerns over specific political prisoners, among other issues.

But the subject also holds the most potential to disrupt a visit that Hu views as important to his legacy. He is scheduled to leave the presidency in 2012.

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