By Alex Kingsbury

The White House lectures China on human rights record

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington for a series of meetings this month to great fanfare and a state dinner -- the first for a Chinese leader in more than 13 years. But for all the pomp and pageantry surrounding the visit, relations between the two nations have gone through a rocky patch over the past few years, experts say. There was some progress made during the summit, including the announcement of a $45 billion trade deal and a mutual nuclear security agreement. But there was a no movement on more thorny issues, like human rights, North Korea, Taiwan, global climate change, or the manipulation of currencies.

Two years into Obama's presidency, his administration is taking a notably more realistic, some would say hard-line, approach toward relations with Beijing. In 2009, when Obama visited China, many human rights advocates and Chinese dissidents were disappointed that the U.S. president didn't raise that issue more forcefully with the Chinese government. In the past, presidents have frequently used the resonant issue of human rights as a diplomatic cudgel.

During President Hu's visit, Obama spoke about human rights during his welcome remarks at the White House. Standing beside the Chinese leader, Obama said Wednesday that "nations are more successful when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being."

The administration's decision to highlight human rights comes after Beijing prevented Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident, from accepting the Nobel Prize, a human rights issue that many in the United States and around the world have condemned. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the eve of Hu's visit, ramped up criticism on that high-profile case. "The longer China represses freedoms, the longer it will miss out on these opportunities, and the longer that Nobel Prize winners' empty chairs in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation's unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise," Clinton said. And adding to the negative tone, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday called Hu a "dictator," a rare phrasing from a senior U.S. leader.

This pugnacious new tone from Washington comes in sharp contrast with the past two years, marked by Obama's more modest tone during his visit to China, his refusal to meet with the exiled Dalai Lama, and a public dust-up over Beijing's alleged hacking of the United States-based Internet search firm Google.

In a rare public press conference last week, Hu and Obama took questions from the press, the first of which dealt with human rights. Asked a pointed question by an Associated Press reporter about his country's record on human rights, Hu declined to answer. Asked the question again, Hu simply said that the two countries had different values on that particular issue and that the best policy was for the United States not to interfere in Chinese internal affairs. "A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights," Hu conceded. (News of the press conference was censored in China, according to reports.) President Obama, for his part, said that human rights were an occasional "source of tension" between the two nations, but not one that prevented them from working together.


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