- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

It’s New Year’s Eve. Around the world, it’s a time for taking stock in one’s life. In Washington, we’ve elevated stock-taking to an art form. But here, it’s taking stock in politics, policy and other people’s lives. Continuing in that spirit, here’s a review of where things stand with China policy.

After a year in office, President Obama earns mixed reviews on China. In a few key areas, notably sticking up for American jobs, he has shown remarkably more guts than his three predecessors. In others, particularly advocating for human rights and basic freedoms in China, his spine has been woefully weak.

First, the good news. The Obama administration is using the World Trade Organization for what it is supposed to be - a trade-dispute resolution mechanism. The administration is also enforcing U.S. trade laws. Bravo. By working with the EU, Japan, Mexico and others to take some of China’s unfair trade practices to the WTO, the administration is helping American workers and demonstrating adherence to the rule of law. Ditto with U.S. trade law enforcement, with its emphasis on a competitive free market and fair play. Those are wins for America.

Kudos, too, to the administration for standing up to the Chinese government at Copenhagen. China’s demand that the U.S. help foot its bill for green technology is a slap in the face to American taxpayers. It’s a particular insult to the people across this country who have lost their jobs to China’s vast array of unfair trade practices. Given America’s innovations in the field, green jobs should be a pillar of U.S. economic growth. But the Chinese government, through its systematic subsidies, incentives and protectionism for its domestic industries, is outpacing the United States in this sector and luring American jobs to its shores. That the Chinese government expects the U.S. to underwrite this trend is a level of moxie that is hard to stomach.

Now, the not-so-good news. On China’s phony currency valuation, Mr. Obama has so far trod the worn and ineffective path of Presidents Bush and Clinton before him. By some estimates, China’s state-controlled currency is undervalued as much as 40 percent, unfairly damaging American manufacturers’ ability to compete. By officially refusing to acknowledge even that China is manipulating its currency, the administration is providing cover to the Chinese government and depriving itself of a tool to create desperately needed jobs here at home.

On human rights, the news is also bad. The president’s decision to put off meeting with the Dalai Lama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s soft-pedaling on human rights were supposed to change the dynamic between the two nations. Perhaps the president and the secretary of state thought a less confrontational approach would get results. Unfortunately, the Chinese government did not get that message and took the change as evidence of a lack of U.S. resolve.

China’s sham trial and sentencing just this week of prominent reformer Liu Xiaobo, in the face of international opposition, is a clear signal that this new approach must be changed. One of the founders of the Charter ‘08 movement, echoing Vaclav Havel’s Charter ‘77 movement in the former Czechoslovakia, Mr. Liu’s so-called “crime” was calling for constitutional reform, greater freedom of expression, multiparty elections and independent courts. Much of what Charter ‘08 espouses is already in the Chinese Constitution.

Mr. Havel himself, when interviewed earlier this month, expressed some reservation about the administration’s human rights strategy. Reflecting upon the U.S. president’s postponement of a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after his November trip to China, Mr. Havel said, “It is necessary to think about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the beginning of the chain that is no good.” We have now seen the second public link in that chain - Liu Xiaobo - and it is indeed not good. It’s time to revise the policy before more bad links are added.

The New Year provides an opportunity to reflect and to change. Of course, those opportunities are there throughout the year. There’s something, though, about the annual ritual of changing the calendar that allows us to approach change in a fresh way. (When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, unfortunately, the track record for most of us is not terrific.)

Here’s hoping that the Obama administration continues on a path where it has already demonstrated results - helping American workers - and changes direction where it is clear that change is needed - currency and human rights, among them.

Happy New Year, Mr. President. To meet the many challenges of 2010, you will need the best wishes and best efforts of a united country. And to all, best wishes for a happy, healthy, fruitful and strong new year.

Carolyn Bartholomew is chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The views expressed in this column are her own.

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