Will Human Rights Cloud Sunnylands?

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping (L) speak at their first meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.

The summit talks this week between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be based on an unprecedented informal setting allowing for what the White House calls "real conversation and some candor."

Against this relaxed setting, can the leaders of the world's two largest economies have a free-flowing discussion on the prickly topic of human rights?

It may be difficult, experts say, considering the plethora of political, security, economic, and trade issues dogging the two governments.

Furthermore, Chinese leaders have often bristled at the mere mention of a human rights issue afflicting  their country, saying this amounts to meddling in their internal affairs.

Despite these sensitivities, Obama is under pressure from lawmakers and human rights groups to pounce on the unusually laid-back, less scripted meeting at the sprawling Sunnylands estate in Southern California on Friday and Saturday to raise Chinese rights concerns with Xi.

"China has shown increasing obstinacy in responding to the international community’s human rights concerns," U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who heads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to fellow Democrat Obama ahead of the summit.

"Our response must not be frustration and despair, but rather to increase our attention and make clear to China’s leaders that these issues cannot be pushed aside by security and economic concerns, but only removed through genuine changes and support for the rule of law," Menendez said in the letter, a copy of which was provided by his office.

He expressed "deep concern over ongoing human rights violations taking place in China, oftentimes by officials acting outside China’s legal structures" and reminded Obama that despite divisive congressional battles, "one bond that unites all Senators in their engagement with China is concern regarding the Chinese government’s lack of respect for universal human rights."


Obama did not mince words when he first met Xi in February last year at the White House. At that time the Chinese leader was vice-president and was gearing up to take over the helm of the world's most populous nation.

"[O]n critical issues like human rights, we will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people," Obama said as he sat side by side with Xi in the Oval Office.

Still, the Obama administration’s record over China’s human rights continues to be questioned.

On some occasions, the administration has spoken forcefully about the importance of human rights protections in China. But on many other occasions—particularly those that would have most influence on senior Chinese officials—public diplomacy in support of human rights has been weak, said Sophie Richardson, the China director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

In his first visit to China as Secretary of State in April 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s public discussion of human rights included only a reference to having raised individual cases, she said.

Despite a commitment to a “whole of government” approach to human rights, it remains unclear whether or what specific human rights issues were raised publicly or privately by other senior American officials during their recent visits to China, she said.

“The yearning for social justice is more acute in China than ever before,” Richardson said. “President Obama can choose to stand in solidarity with ordinary Chinese people and support their struggle. Otherwise his silence could be taken as consent for the Chinese government’s continued repression.”

Many basic rights issues in China, such as an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and the freedom of expression, underpin key diplomatic, economic, and strategic issues in the U.S.-China relationship.

Against the backdrop of these concerns, the White House has made it clear that human rights will be front and center of the first meeting between Obama and Xi since the Chinese leader took power in March and the U.S. leader embarked on his second White House term.

"As always, the President will forthrightly—and I think persuasively—raise American human rights concerns," a senior administration official said, without citing any specific concerns.

"The setup of the meeting is a smaller, informal format that I think will allow for real conversation and some candor—a little bit less scripted perhaps than the formalities of a state visit," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The fact that the new Chinese leader agreed to an untested and unprecedented format for a meeting with an American President is I think encouraging."

T. Kumar, the Washington-based international advocacy director at Amnesty International, said if Obama fails to raise human rights in a "forceful" manner at the talks, "it will send a wrong message to the new Chinese president that human rights is not one of the U.S. priorities."

"This meeting will set the tone for future meetings, and since this is an informal setup, President Obama should not miss this opportunity," he said.

"Amnesty believes this is the best environment for him to raise human rights concerns" as the discussions in a freewheeling agenda are a departure from the normally tightly scripted U.S.-China summits.

Labor camps

Kumar said among key human rights concerns that need to be raised with Xi is the issue of reeducation-through-labor camps in China, in which he said tens of thousands of Chinese have been arbitrarily imprisoned without any charge or trial.

He also cited the "worrying" situation facing Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated Chinese provinces as well as ethnic Uyghurs in the restive Xinjiang region.

During their meeting, Obama can also ask Xi about the fate of individual activists, including Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng, and Chen Guangcheng, said Richardson of Human Rights Watch.

Liu, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, remains in jail while his wife Liu Xia is under unlawful house arrest in Beijing.

Gao Zhisheng, a well-known human rights lawyer,also remains in jail after being repeatedly disappeared and tortured by the authorities.

Although blind legal activist Chen escaped from house arrest last year and was allowed to go to the United States, his extended family continues to suffer detention and harassment in retaliation for Chen’s activism, Richardson said.

Xi began his term with grand plans for reform, hinting at possible changes to widely disliked policies in China, including the reeducation through labor system, the abusive one-child policy, and the discriminatory household registration or “hukou” system, but his rhetoric has not yet been matched by corresponding actions, she said.

Even if Obama and Xi touch on human rights, other issues which officials view as more pressing would steal the thunder, some experts said.

For example, Obama is facing pressure from lawmakers and businesses to pressure Xi to curb high-tech spying and stop cyberattacks launched from Chinese soil.

The Washington Post said last week that China has used cyberattacks to access data from nearly 40 Pentagon weapons programs, but Beijing has dismissed the report.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel openly accused China of waging a cyberspying campaign against the United States during a security forum in Singapore.

The U.S. is also concerned over China's escalating territorial disputes with US allies, including in the South China Sea.

China, on the other hand, is worried over Obama's military and diplomatic "rebalancing" of U.S. power towards Asia. Some in Beijing think the United States may be moving to encircle it militarily with its "Asia pivot."

The two countries are also facing trade and currency disputes.

North Korea is also expected to feature high on the agenda, with Washington banking on Beijing to apply more pressure on its ally over its recent nuclear belligerence.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.