- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

UPDATED:

SHANGHAI — By historical standards, President Obama’s attempt to confront China on its human rights record Monday was comparatively tame, experts said, leaving him just two days in Beijing to either deliver a more forceful message or establish a new, less forceful approach to China’s suppression of political dissent.

The president had the first opportunity of his eight-day Asian tour to wade into the thorny topic of China’s suppression of ethnic minorities and religious groups. Speaking to 500 university students here, Mr. Obama gently addressed the value of free expression three times, but mostly in the context of the United States’ own checkered civil rights history.

“We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation,” Mr. Obama said. “But we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression, and worship, and access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including religious and ethnic minorities, whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.”

TRANSCRIPT: Obama’s town hall in China

The president delivered his remarks in a rare, live-streamed, unfiltered Internet broadcast, that was also shown locally on cable television in Shanghai. In 1998, President Clinton, by contrast, conducted a press conference that aired live on national television, and he sat for a 20-minute interview on the national news. He raised specific concerns with China’s human rights record in both instances.

Human rights advocates said they were pleased to see Mr. Obama champion the free flow of information and talk publicly on Chinese soil about equality for ethnic and religious minorities. But their overall reaction was disappointment.

“It was a missed opportunity,” said Phelim Kine, a spokesman for the group Human Rights Watch. “He failed to address some of the most specific and visceral human rights abuses going on in China.”

Mr. Kine said any new strategic relationship with China should allow for candor in discussing matters of conscience. “We didn’t see it in his words today,” he said.

White House aides expressed satisfaction with the president’s frank words about what he called “universal rights.” Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., who supplemented student questions with one he pulled from the Internet, was able to make certain the president would be able to address China’s censorship of the Internet, and its refusal to grant widespread access to mass communication sites such as Twitter.

They said that even though the speech was not widely broadcast, the Chinese people will hear about it.

“The president capitalized on an unprecedented forum within China to deliver a strong message about universal rights such as freedom of expression and open access to information,” a White House spokesman said.

“I am a big believer in technology, and I am a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information,” Mr. Obama said. “I believe that the more freely information flows, the stronger a society becomes.”

The meeting has been perhaps the most anticipated of his eight-day, four-country tour through Asia because, unlike so much of his carefully choreographed diplomatic journey, it held the potential for an unscripted moment.

Both in the halls of power in Beijing, and in living rooms back at home, Mr. Obama’s interaction with university students here was being closely scrutinized for how he would address the most delicate issue dividing the U.S. and China, human rights.

He did so by explaining how and why those rights have grown to be so deeply valued in the United States, through the battles over slavery, the effort to gain women the right to vote, and the ability of immigrants to be welcomed into American society. And he referenced his own frustration with critics on the Internet to make a full-throated pitch for a free and unfiltered web as a valuable check on the powerful.

The topic of China’s harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, of dissidents and government critics, and of religious groups that operate without official sanction, have presented the Obama administration with one of its most vexing challenges.

In part, that’s because the president is confronting these long festering concerns at a time when the United State’s economic future, the fate of the global environment, and the fragile security surrounding such unstable nations as North Korea and Iran all depend on a cooperative relationship with China.

The run-up to the president arrival in China yesterday just served to illustrate how delicate the problem remains. Several weeks ago, the president declined to meet in Washington with the Dalai Lama, an unprecedented snub widely viewed as a step taken to avoid irritating the Chinese in advance of his visit.

Then, as Mr. Obama’s trip drew near, the White House repeatedly dodged questions about a protracted disagreement over the ground rules for his public appearances while traveling inside a country that tightly controls the spread of information and access to media.

Asked about the plans for Mr. Obama’s impending town hall appearance late last week, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said only that it the president wanted his exchanges to be uncensored, and viewed by a wide audience. Mr. Rhodes would not say whether that goal had been achieved, though on Sunday he told reporters the president’s appearance would be live-streamed on whitehouse.gov. He did not know whether China would block access to the site, as it does to some other American and western web pages.

In the final hours before he arrived at the glass and steel science museum, negotiations continued over every detail — where would the appearance be broadcast (Shanghai TV, which is a cable news channel with about 3 million viewers); would American reporters be allowed into the lecture hall (some were, others said just outside the hall); how many questions would the students be allowed (there were eight).

Most of the students, who were picked from eight Chinese universities, indicated as they filed into the venue that they did not plan to wade into provocative waters. “You said change in your presidential campaign, from what aspects should Americans change?” was what one young civil engineering student from Tongji University planned to ask.

That is largely how it played out. Two of the eight questions were about Mr. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win, and in a third, a student tried to get him to address a major concern of the Chinese government — whether the U.S. would sell more weapons to Taiwan. But the president did not, as human rights watchers and China experts had feared, completely shy away from these sensitive topics.

If there was a problem with the Obama administration’s approach, experts said, it was in what was left unspoken. David Kramer, a former state department official who advised President Bush on human rights issues, said he learned that lesson the hard way when China hosted the Olympics.

Mr. Kramer, now a fellow with the German Marshall Fund, said President Bush accepted the Chinese invitation to attend the games without asking for enough in return.

“They very much wanted him at the Olympics. And I don’t think we sufficiently tapped into that leverage,” Mr. Kramer said.

The situation should have been instructive for Mr. Obama, he said.

“Given his decision not to meet the Dalai Lama before his trip, a specific mention of Tibet would have been important,” Mr. Kramer said. “He didn’t need to be in the face of the Chinese leadership, but he might have been a little too soft.”

In many ways, human rights advocates said, Mr. Obama is uniquely positioned to address some of the most disturbing developments in China in recent days. Sophie Richardson, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said she could not imagine how someone who “has spoken quite evocatively of the protections of a legal system and treatment of ethnic minorities” could ignore Chinese crackdowns on minorities in Tibet and the Xinjiang provence.

But Ms. Richardson said she and other human rights advocates had become increasingly concerned as the Obama administration was taking the wrong approach to these issues in China.

Ms. Richardson said the first red flags came in February when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton caused a stir by telling reporters that “pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” The president’s decision on the Dalai Lama’s visit was another ominous sign. Then, when the president gave his first major speech on Asia policy in Tokyo last week, he chose to highlight human rights issues by talking about Myanmar. He did not mention Tibet or Xinjiang.

“There is probably a lot of pressure, particularly on domestic economic issues to not irritate the Chinese,” she said. “The Chinese government places a lot of analytical importance on first visits. If certain issues aren’t brought up on first visits, they will be that much harder to raise in the future.”

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