Chinese President Hu Jintao comes to the United States next week for a state visit with President Obama. Those of us who work on human rights in China and Tibet are watching closely to see what President Obama does and says. Will he use this opportunity to make the case that human rights are an integral part of the U.S.-China relationship, or will he signal that disagreements over human rights shouldn’t impede progress on other issues?
President Obama’s latest remarks on human rights in China were among his best. In a December 10 statement on the awarding (in absentia) of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, he spoke that “Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law,” and called for Liu’s release from a Chinese prison. His statement championed the universal values of human rights, as he has done on other occasions, including before the United Nations.
In practice, however, the policies of his Administration have failed to diffuse criticism that it has downgraded human rights in the bilateral relationship. The first impression endures: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarked, in her first month on the job, that human rights would not “interfere” with engagement with the Chinese on other issues.
On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at the memorial service for those killed and wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8. His speech has been widely praised for its poignancy, even called “brilliant and courageous” by one conservative.
Obama sought to bring perspective to a tragedy that is utterly senseless. He did so by drawing out the humanity of the victims, the survivors and those who exhibited bravery. His message was infused with the themes of universal, shared values that he has expressed on the world stage. One particular passage struck me:
“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that’s entirely up to us. And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”
If President Obama ever intended to channel the message of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he couldn’t do better than this. The notions of responsibility of the individual, the power of compassion, and the quest for a collective goodness greater than ourselves, are all core to the Dalai Lama’s teachings through his life.
I dwell on this theme as we anticipate the visit of President Hu to capital of our country, and the town where I live. President Obama will be hosting Hu on behalf of all Americans, whose country was founded on the idea that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are rights that are natural, self-evident and universal.
Back in his country, Hu’s government has assumed for itself the responsibility for the well-being of all the people living within the borders of the People’s Republic of China, be they Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian or Chinese. This well-being is defined not by the statistics coming out of China’s National Bureau of Statistics. It is defined by the sum of each person’s desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The hopes and aspirations of every human, whether they live in Shenyang, Lhasa or Tucson, are essentially the same. The Chinese Communist Party is wrong. There are no distinct eastern and western human rights, only universal ones.
We are encouraged that President Obama can bring back to Washington the spirit and conviction that he expressed so well in Arizona. There are only so many opportunities to make a lasting impression. When he sits down to dinner with Hu Jintao, we hope that Obama seizes the moment to speak to the humanity and values shared in common by every individual in their two countries and around the world.