Human rights on the rise in U.S. approach to China

On Thursday, May 12, 2011, in China, US Government, by Todd Stein

The main media take-away from the just concluded Strategic and Economic Dialogue appears to be that the U.S. pushed China on human rights, in the context of the recent crackdown on writers, journalists and lawyers.  Selected headlines include:

ICT has a similar reaction in its statement: ICT Applauds Human Rights Agenda in High-Level Strategic and Economic Dialogue

Secretary Clinton

May 10, 2011: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner give a joint statement with the Chinese Co-Chairs, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, at the close of the US-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Washington, DC. | State Dept

Of course, we don’t know how human rights, or the Tibet issue, were discussed in the private talks.  But it is a generally positive sign that the Obama Administration has upped the public rhetoric in this area. Importantly, the President and other officials have framed their concerns over Beijing’s rights abuses within the universality of fundamental human rights. They have also talked up rights as a key to “stability” in China, which is a critical argument in the case for a negotiated resolution to the Tibet issue.

This posture by the Obama Administration is also notable given where they have come from. Secretary Clinton’s comments about not letting human rights get in the way of other issues set an unfortunate tone. Human rights were not emphasized in bilateral meetings in 2009 and 2010. I have attached statements below that demonstrate this dynamic. First are several U.S. statements before and during the just-concluded Dialogue. Following that are meager statements from previous years.

Obama Administration remarks before and during Strategic and Economic Dialogues

2011 S&ED


Ambassador Jon Hunstman farewell speech, Shanghai

Long after I depart Beijing, future Ambassadors will continue to visit American citizens like Dr. Feng Xue, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing state secrets and is now serving an eight-year sentence in prison far from his family in the United States. They will continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.

The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur. We do so not because we oppose China but, on the contrary, because we value our relationship. President Hu and Premier Wen have both acknowledged the universality of human rights.

By speaking out candidly, we hope eventually to narrow and bridge this critical gap and move our relationship forward.


Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, debriefing on human rights dialogue, Beijing (excerpt)

These human rights issues, promotion of human rights and democracy, is a central element of U.S. policy in the world in the Obama administration. Principled engagement means that we deal with countries around the world in multiple ways. We have strategic interests, we have economic interests, we have other political interests. But human rights is an essential feature of what we do.

So to the extent that there are serious human rights problems, those problems become an impediment to the relationship and they make the other aspects of the relationship more difficult. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop engaging. It doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the importance of the relationship. But inevitably when there’s a deterioration as there has been here, it makes the relationship that much harder.


Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, special briefing

I do want to underscore it is our intention to raise issues of concern directly, honestly, and opening with our Chinese interlocutors, including issues of concern associated with human rights.

And to – was it your fifth question or your – I can’t remember what number – (laughter) – so I lost count halfway through. So, look, on the important issue that you raised with respect to human rights, I think it is our position that we want to approach this critical matter from a principled and consistent approach. You will see that in the President’s meeting, in the Secretary’s statements, in all her meetings, we raise human rights issues, not just generally but specifically, specific cases. We ask Chinese interlocutors for explanations about disappearances, about arrests and legal procedures which we feel are either lacking or inappropriate, and it is our position that we will continue to do so as part of a broad, strategic approach to our relationship.

And Secretary Clinton – and I think not just the Secretary, but other key members of the U.S. delegation, I think, will be raising these matters with counterparts in the Chinese system. It is important that on these matters of really not just national import, but international import, the Chinese hear concerns not just simply from the Secretary of State or key players in the White House, but all members of the American political establishment because these truly are matters that have the potential to affect our overall relationship.


Vice President Joseph Biden, opening session of S&ED

As I’ve said earlier, it’s important to be straightforward with one another.  There is one area where we have vigorous disagreement.  And I know and I understand that disagreement, when we voice it, is upsetting or rankles — I don’t know how that translates into Chinese

– but how it concerns some of our friends in China.  We have vigorous disagreement in the area of human rights.

We’ve noted our concerns about the recent crackdown in China, including attacks, arrests and the disappearance of journalists, lawyers, bloggers and artists.  And again, no relationship that’s real can be built on a false foundation.  Where we disagree, it’s important to state it.  We’ll continue to express our views in these issues, as we did in the Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing two weeks ago.

Now, look, as I said, I recognize that some in China see our advocacy as — human rights as an intrusion and Lord only knows what else.  But President Obama and I believe strongly, as does the Secretary, that protecting fundamental rights and freedoms such as those enshrined in China’s international commitments, as well as in China’s own constitution, is the best way to promote long-term stability and prosperity of any society.


Senior administration official, special briefing

Human rights and mil-mil. Well, let me take the first one. I think as the Secretary – as Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden outlined in their speeches this morning, human rights is a fundamental element of American foreign policy. It’s part of who we are, and we have serious concerns about the crackdown that we’ve seen going on in China in recent weeks and months. And in addition to stating those views publicly, the Secretary had an opportunity to state those views in private with State Councilor Dai as well, and to engage in an exchange. And I think it was – I would describe their discussions on human rights as very candid and honest, and there should be no room for ambiguity between our two sides on our views on that subject.


Secretary Hillary Clinton, opening session

Now, like any two great nations – in fact, I would argue like any two people – we have our differences. And like friends, we discuss those differences honestly and forthrightly. We will be continuing the discussion of the recent U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue just held in Beijing. We have made very clear, publicly and privately, our concern about human rights. We worry about the impact on our domestic politics and on the politics and the stability in China and the region. We see reports of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists, and others, who are detained or disappeared. And we know over the long arch of history that societies that work toward respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable, and successful.

That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months.


Secretary Clinton, The Atlantic, June 2011

“We live in the real world, and there are lots of countries that we deal with because we have interests in common, we have certain security issues that we are both looking at,” she said. “Obviously, in the Middle East, Iran is an overwhelming challenge to all of us. We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. We encourage consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and the protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human-rights record. We don’t walk away from Saudi Arabia.”


Secretary Clinton, Interview with Caixin Media Company

Well, I think we have to recognize that we are two different nations based on history and experience and perspective, so we are not going to see the world the same way, we’re not going to agree on everything. That would make it very boring, I believe. So what we best can do is honestly express our opinions. Nothing is off the table, nothing is hidden; everything is to be presented and discussed. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

And so certainly from our perspective, we believe that human rights is of important interest and it’s a value of the United States. We will continue to raise it and we will listen to our Chinese partners’ responses. We will encourage progress in this area. And we think it’s very valuable to make sure that the relationship is strong and stable so that when we have areas of disagreement, which we certainly will have, that we continue our talking and our working together despite that.


Secretary Clinton, Interview with Phoenix TV

And I remember my first trip to China as Secretary of State. It was in the midst of the financial crisis. And Chinese friends had many critical things to say about our regulatory system, our economic system. And it was good not to pretend otherwise but to say, how did this happen, why did this happen, what are you going to do to fix it. So we’ve had, I think, a very good and friendly exchange.

Now, sometimes the media paints it as something other than part of the ongoing dialogue. And what I have told Americans is we will, for example, raise questions about human rights, but that doesn’t prevent us from working on critical issues that will determine the quality of life that people lead. How do we keep our economies growing? If the United States and China don’t cooperate, the world will suffer. How do we deal with climate change? How do we deal with energy? How do we deal with all of these issues – food security, clean water – which are critically important to the people that we both represent? So it’s not either/or. It’s a combination. It is, as both President Hu Jintao and President Obama said, we want a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.

2010 S&ED


Assistant Secretay Campbell, briefing on upcoming S&ED

[nothing on human rights]


Secretary Clinton, opening session

Now, our discussions in these few days are unlikely to solve the shared challenges we face. But they can and should provide a framework for delivering real results to our people. We will not agree on every issue. But we will discuss them openly, as between friends and partners. And that includes America’s commitment to universal human rights and dignity, and so much else that is on both Chinese and American minds.


Secretary Clinton, closing remarks

Now, as we have said many times, we do not agree on every issue. We don’t agree even sometimes on the perception of the issue. But that is partly what this dialogue is about. It is a place where we can discuss everything, as State Councilor Dai said, from Taiwan to universal human rights. And in the course of doing so, we are developing that positive, cooperative, and comprehensive understanding that leads to the relationship for the 21st century that both President Obama and President Hu Jintao put into motion when they agreed to do this dialogue.

2009 S&ED


David Shear, East Asia Bureau, Briefing on S&ED

[nothing on human rights]


Secretary Clinton, plenary session

None of these problems will be easy to solve, and results won’t happen overnight. We will not always see eye-to-eye, as is the case with human rights, where the United States will continue to be guided by the ideal that the rights of all people must be respected. Still, solutions to many of today’s global challenges are within reach if we work cooperatively where our interests intersect, and are honest with each other when they don’t.


Secretary Clinton, opinion piece, WSJ

[nothing on human rights]


Secretary Clinton, closing remarks

And later this evening, we and our Chinese colleagues will participate in a dinner of American business leaders and citizens supporting that effort. In areas where we do not always agree, such as human rights, we had candid and respectful exchanges.

PHOTO: May 10, 2011: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner give a joint statement with the Chinese Co-Chairs, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, at the close of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in Washington, DC. | State Dept

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1 Response » to “Human rights on the rise in U.S. approach to China”

  1. Tseten Badheytsang says:

    At present USA is the only world Super Power, future is uncertain for anyone. Human Rights and world Peace is universal. Autocrat regime are the threats to that Rights and Peace, USA does stand to protect these Universal values of Human Rights and Peace, but still more stronger efforts and policies needed to apply.

    Issue of Tibet’s occupation by PRC should be made international issue! all it’s allies should come forward with one strong voice and strong action to free Tibet for world Peace! Time to subdue this Bloody regime of PRC is running high now! Strong action now! Not just the diplomacy and exchange of words!

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