Obama prepares to engage China on human rights as President Hu visits next week

Chinese President Hu Jintao is making his first state visit to the United States.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011; 3:40 AM

President Obama is planning to refocus attention on China's record of suppressing free speech and political freedom in the coming weeks, despite the risk of further destabilizing an important relationship after a contentious year.

After elevating human rights as a guiding principle of his foreign policy at the United Nations last fall, Obama has been looking for ways to engage China's leaders on the issue without undermining his efforts to enlist their help in dealing with Iran and North Korea, and in reviving the world economy.

Senior administration officials say he is exploring ways to better reach Chinese citizens directly, perhaps by using technology unavailable to many of his predecessors.

He has also been seeking advice from Chinese dissidents and human rights advocates ahead of President Hu Jintao's state visit next week. On Thursday, Obama met for more than an hour at the White House with five advocates for human rights in China, the first time he has done so in that venue.

While economic and security issues are likely to be the focus of Hu's visit, how Obama manages the topic of human rights will help define his summit with Hu and provide clues to how the president intends to speak with China in the years ahead about political prisoners, an inconsistent rule of law and a repressed civil society.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton began to set the tone Friday with a speech at the State Department.

"America will continue to speak out and press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists, when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship, when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions," Clinton said.

"Many in China resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on their sovereignty," she said in a broad address outlining her views on the future of U.S. -China relations. "But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens."

In his U.N. address, Obama included what was understood by many to be veiled criticism of China. But overall the president has been criticized for what conservatives in particular say is an overly cautious approach to human rights. His timing and tone have often stood in sharp contrast to that of the George W. Bush administration, which made the promotion of democracy, even at the point of a gun, a centerpiece of its foreign policy.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said it's important for Obama to "lay down a marker" in his conversations with Hu, even if doing so "does not help you win the contest of ideas all by itself."

"This is the first time in several decades that we have seen a great power that stands for and promotes an alternative vision of how states should relate to their people, and that poses a threat not just to political dissidents inside China but to a whole set of values and norms that underpin the international system the United States helped build," Malinowski said.

By hosting Hu, who arrives Wednesday, Obama will become 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.

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