Obama Meets China Rights Advocates

U.S. leader to raise human rights at U.S.-China summit.
2011-01-14
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The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010.
The empty chair with a diploma and medal that should have been awarded to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (portrait L) at the Oslo City Hall, Dec. 10, 2010.
AFP
President Barack Obama has held his first meeting in the White House with key campaigners for human rights in China, highlighting the prickly issue in bilateral relations ahead of talks next week with Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

The meeting on Thursday came as Obama's top diplomat Hillary Clinton, in an unusually forthright message, urged China to release dissidents, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

The Secretary of State said on Friday that "the longer China represses freedoms, the longer it will miss out on" opportunities and "the longer that Liu Xiaobo's empty chair in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation’s unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise."

Chinese democracy activist and writer Liu is serving an 11-year prison term for co-authoring a bold petition for political reform. At the Dec. 10 Nobel award ceremony in Oslo, he was represented by an empty chair.

Obama will achieve the distinction of becoming the first U.S. president to host a head of state currently holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in prison.

The Obama-Hu meeting at the White House is slated for Wednesday.

'Arbitrary exercise of power'

At the meeting on Thursday, Obama wanted to hear the views of the rights advocates on the current human rights situation in China and recent social, legal, and political developments.

"They discussed current challenges, prospects for reform, and recommendations for U.S. policy," Benjamin Chang, deputy spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, told RFA.

"The President was particularly interested in learning more about the situation on the ground, how everyday Chinese citizens experience and view these issues, and what more we can and should do to help," he said.

"He affirmed our longstanding commitment to standing by those whose basic rights have been violated and supporting those who are seeking to protect and advance such rights," Chang said.

Obama also underscored U.S. interest in fostering greater transparency, openness, and respect for the rule of law over the long-term, he said.

Among those in the hour-long session with Obama were activist Li Xiaorong, a Chinese human rights advocate since the 1980s now living in exile in the United States; Chinese writer Zha Jianying, whose brother is a former political prisoner in China; Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor and National Endowment for Democracy board member; author Bette Bao Lord, a Chinese-born writer, democracy advocate, and wife of former U.S. ambassador to China Winston Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, founder of the China Law Center at Yale University.

The US leader will raise the human rights issue during his private meetings with Hu and also speak about the topic in his public appearance with the Chinese leader, the Washington Post reported, citing an official who attended Thursday's meeting with the human rights advocates.

"Very pluralistic"

Obama's meeting on Thursday was "very pluralistic," the official said.

"Many different opinions were shared," the official said. "But the consensus was that human rights has to be on the agenda even if it is awkward. And it makes a difference when it is."

"The president's style in talking about human rights is different than others have used," the official said. "His convictions come through strongly, but he is not interested in hectoring, or lecturing, or embarrassing them. He's interested in affecting how people think."

Chang said Obama reaffirmed the American commitment to the promotion of human rights and democracy in U.S. foreign policy.

The meeting with the rights advocates ahead of the Hu summit was seen as positive by many groups, especially as Beijing has increased persecution in recent years of democracy advocates, ethnic minorities, Catholics, human rights lawyers, and many other civil society groups.

"President Obama has shown an unfortunate indifference to China's human rights violations during his two years in office. So we're happy to report that the President yesterday convened a White House meeting with activists and scholars to educate himself and brainstorm about how to change course," the Wall Street Journal said in an opinion piece Friday.

"The President has very little personal experience with China, and he and his Administration have underestimated how their reluctance to raise human rights concerns would be interpreted by Beijing as carte blanche for a crackdown."

Skeptical

Still, some were skeptical.

Asked whether the  Obama-Hu summit will help bring about improvement in human rights in China, former U.S. envoy to China Lord said, “I would like to think so, but I don’t believe it will."

"It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. But change in China is going to come from within China and from the Chinese people. I don’t believe the Chinese leaders are in any mood to change the situation—at least in the near term."

"In fact, in recent years they have been going backward on human rights and political reform.”

Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated by Jennifer Chou. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.


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