By Scott Wilson
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.
At their meetings next week, Obama and Hu may 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 human rights issues also hold the most potential to disrupt a visit that Hu - eager to rehabilitate China's image here after a campaign season when the country was cast as an economic rival - views as important to his legacy. He is scheduled to leave the presidency in 2012.
President Bush hosted Hu for a visit in 2006. But instead of the state dinner he will receive this time, Bush offered him only a lunch. There were also several embarrassments that marred the visit in Hu's eyes, including a follower of Falun Gong, a religious sect outlawed in China, unfurling a protest banner inside the White House gates.
Given Hu's interest in a smooth visit, some China analysts say Obama could have used the trappings of a full state visit as leverage to secure more pledges on human rights in advance of the summit, including a promise to restart the human rights dialogue or release some political prisoners.
"I would have held out a little more on protocol," said Michael Green, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who helped plan such visits in the previous administration. "The administration's hoping, out of this summit, to have some human rights dialogue restart, but they're not sure they have it, and in any case, Liu Xiaobo and numerous other prominent dissidents are obviously in jail."
Senior administration officials involved in planning Hu's visit say Obama does not intend to keep quiet about the issue next week. They said the president intends to both publicly and privately call for expanded civil liberties, saying they could further spur economic innovation. The leaders will also take questions at a White House news conference, something U.S. officials insisted on including as part of Hu's state visit.
"The president's style in talking about human rights is different than others have used," said one senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly on the sensitive subject. "His convictions come through strongly, but he is not interested in hectoring or lecturing or embarrassing them. He's interested in affecting how people think."
During Obama's Thursday meeting at the White House, he questioned the rights advocates - three of whom were born in China - about how, in the words of one of the officials present, "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?" one official said. "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."
The human rights advocates who attended the meeting with Obama were Andrew Nathan of Columbia University; Zha Jianying, a Chinese writer and expert on the country's youth culture; Paul Gewirtz, founder of the China Law Center at Yale University; Bette Bao Lord, a Chinese-born writer and democracy advocate and the wife of Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China; and Li Xiarong, a Chinese human rights advocate now living in exile in the United States.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, rights advocates have been meeting with administration officials to discuss how China's record will be handled during the visit and in the months ahead.
Malinowski and others are recommending that Obama seek ways to directly engage the Chinese public on the importance of civil liberties, not only as human rights but also as something important to China as it works to build an innovating economy and educated population to sustain it.
During his U.N. address, Obama highlighted technological advances that allow outside information and guidance to flow into otherwise closed societies. The topic arose again Thursday at his meeting with human rights advocates at the White House.
In the five weeks since Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, the Chinese government's crackdown on dissidents and human rights lawyers appears to have eased, with most saying they can now leave their homes freely and travel abroad.
But Liu Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, remains under apparent house arrest and barred from any outside communication.
"Freedom for most people has been gradually restored after the ceremony," said activist lawyer Teng Biao, who spent several days confined in a hotel. "The situation for us will gradually return to the way it was before October 8," when the Nobel committee announced Liu as the winner. But Teng said it is harder to predict the bigger trend, "which partly depends on the reaction of the international community. The concern and attention from the international community in general helps the human rights situation in China."
Some human rights advocates are watching to see if Hu will make a goodwill gesture before his meeting with Obama or shortly after. Such a move could include the release of a prominent prisoner, and Xue Feng, a 45-year-old U.S. citizen, is high on the list.
Xue, a geologist, was arrested by Chinese authorities in November 2007 for allegedly exposing state secrets through the publication of information he discovered about China's oil fields.
China declared the information secret two years after Xue disclosed it, but a Chinese court convicted him last year and sentenced him to an eight-year prison term.
"We're not getting any indication right now that a release will take place before President Hu goes to Washington," said John Kamm, a human rights advocate and executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation who is seeking Xue's release. "But I can't think of anything that would be more conducive to creating the right atmosphere for a successful summit than the release of Xue Feng."
Correspondent Keith Richburg in Beijing contributed to this report.