- 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.

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