The U.S. finds its voice on China and human rights

Monday, January 17, 2011; 8:04 PM

THE OBAMA administration's policy toward China shows signs of a significant adjustment on the eve of a state visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao. The potential change was embedded in a major speech on U.S.-Chinese relations delivered Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was Ms. Clinton who disastrously declared early in the administration's tenure that human rights concerns would not be allowed to "interfere" with U.S.-Chinese relations. In her latest speech she addressed the issue at length, making the case that "the longer China represses freedoms, the longer . . . empty chairs in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise."

Ms. Clinton also spoke of the economic agenda with Beijing and the need for China to revalue its currency and enforce intellectual property laws - matters addressed in separate speeches last week by the Treasury and Commerce secretaries. She covered the often difficult U.S.-China dialogue over North Korea, which lately appears to have achieved convergence on a strategy of supporting improved relations between North Korea and South Korea.

But the novelty in the secretary's speech was the introduction of China's repression of peaceful dissent and its unjust and cruel treatment of political prisoners as a major theme in the administration's public diplomacy toward China. Ms. Clinton specifically cited Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner prevented from attending the prize ceremony in Oslo, and Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who has been illegally held incommunicado since last April. Ms. Clinton argued that "those who advocate peacefully for reform within the constitution . . . should not be harassed or prosecuted" and that liberalization of freedom of expression and civil society would "help address some of China's most pressing issues."

Ms. Clinton's newfound assertiveness on these issues comes at an opportune moment, for a couple of reasons. One is that while Mr. Hu, whose five-year term will end in 2012, has presided over a period of stagnation in Chinese politics, support for liberalization has appeared to be growing within the Chinese elite. Mr. Hu's deputy, premier Wen Jiabao, has spoken out repeatedly in recent months about the need for reform, saying in one interview that "the people's desire and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible."

Second, China's would-be reformers face an ugly contrary current, seemingly centered in the military, that has been pushing a belligerent foreign policy, including toward the United States. A visit to China last week by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was marred by the staging of a test of a new stealth fighter plane on the day Mr. Gates met Mr. Hu - who apparently learned of the provocative demonstration from Mr. Gates.

Mr. Hu's visit offers the opportunity for the United States to make clear that a liberalizing China will be far more welcome as it rises as a world power than one that continues to deny its citizens freedom and the rule of law. A freer China is also more likely to curb its nationalist and militarist impulses. Ms. Clinton has made a good start; Mr. Obama must now reinforce the message.

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