- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SHANGHAI | Gently wading into one of the most sensitive topics of his eight-day Asian tour, President Obama Monday raised the issue of China’s human rights and the value of free expression, in part by citing the United States’ own checkered civil rights history.

The muted address to about 500 university students here left Mr. Obama with just two days in Beijing to either deliver a more forceful message or establish a new, markedly softer approach to China’s suppression of political dissent.

“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.”

The president delivered his remarks in a rare, live-streamed 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.

Later, Mr. Obama flew to Beijing for a meeting and dinner with President Hu Jintao, after which the two leaders were to hold a joint press briefing. Economics - and U.S. pressure on China over its currency policies - was expected to be a prime topic of the bilateral talks.

Human rights advocates said they were pleased to see Mr. Obama address freedom of the press and respect for ethnic minorities, but the overall reaction from others 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.

“We are pleased that he spoke up on human rights during his first public event in China and we urge him to speak more about during the joint press conference in Beijing,” added T. Kumar of the Washington office of Amnesty International.

The Shanghai event was perhaps the most anticipated of Mr. Obama’s four-country tour through Asia because, unlike so much of his carefully choreographed diplomatic journey, it held the potential for an unscripted moment.

China’s harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, of dissidents and government critics, and of religious groups that operate without official sanction, has presented the Obama administration with one of its most vexing challenges with a country vital to U.S. economic and diplomatic interests.

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

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.

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.

Two of the eight questions were about Mr. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize win and a third focused on 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 George W. Bush on human rights issues, said he learned that lesson the hard way when China hosted the 2008 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.

Sophie Richardson, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said she and other human rights advocates had become increasingly concerned that the Obama administration was taking the wrong approach to these issues in China.

“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.”

c Tom LoBianco in Washington contributed to this report.