Obama, Hu Confront Rights Issue

China's leader says mutual respect is the key to cooperation.

obama-hu-welcome.jpg Obama speaks with Hu standing beside him at the welcoming ceremony outside the White House, Jan. 19.
President Barack Obama underlined on Wednesday the importance of respecting human rights to his visiting Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, who acknowledged that "a lot still needs to be done" to polish China's rights record.

Obama broached the prickly issue at the official welcoming ceremony for Hu outside the White House, and the two leaders grappled with the issue at a rare press conference, with the Chinese leader at one point emphasizing "noninterference in each other's internal affairs." 
"History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just, when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," Obama said at the ceremony.

Outside the White House, hundreds of protesters carrying banners and brightly colored flags lined Pennsylvania Avenue, some chanting "Hu Jintao, go home!" as the Chinese leader's visit became a lightning rod for advocates of China's minority Uyghurs, Tibetans, imprisoned democracy advocates, and other groups.

Questioned by reporters later, Obama admitted that differences on human rights were "an occasional source of tension" between the American and Chinese governments but stressed the "core views" of Americans concerning freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.


Obama said he raised the rights issue candidly with Hu, who is on a four-day visit and will be honored on Wednesday with the full pomp of a state dinner, the third during Obama's term in office.

The U.S. leader also pushed China to engage in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, who is campaigning for greater autonomy in the Chinese-ruled Himalayan state.

Hu defended charges of rights abuses by Beijing, saying it is "always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights" and that it has "made enormous progress" in its practices.

He pointed out that while human rights are universal, the issue should be viewed in the context of a country's state of development.

"China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. At the same time, we need to take into account the different national circumstances. China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform."

China "faces many challenges in social and economic development. A lot still needs to be done in China on human rights," the Chinese leader said.

"Internal affairs"

Hu pointed out that while China "is willing to engage in dialogue" with the U.S. and other nations on human rights issues, countries must exercise "the principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs."

Obama is the first U.S. president hosting a head of state holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in prison and has been under pressure at home to directly raise rights issues with Hu.

Chinese democracy activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner, is serving an 11-year prison term for co-authoring a bold petition for political reform.

A U.S. official said Obama, himself a Nobel laureate, raised Liu's plight directly with Hu but declined to characterize the Chinese leader's response.

The two leaders also discussed a range of other bilateral issues, including U.S. charges that China's currency, the yuan, is undervalued and is used by Beijing for advantage in trade.

"There needs to be further adjustment in the exchange rate," Obama said bluntly.

Export deals

The White House said in a statement that U.S. and Chinese businesses agreed to sign export deals worth U.S. $45 billion.

The statement said the deals, which include a U.S. $19 billion contract to buy 200 aircraft from U.S. aerospace giant Boeing for delivery between 2011 and 2013, would support an estimated 235,000 American jobs.

Beijing officials said Chinese companies had signed 70 contracts worth U.S. $25 billion in U.S. exports from 12 states.

The announcement appeared timed to stave off criticism over the U.S. trade deficit with China, which hit an estimated record of U.S. $275 billion last year.


Meanwhile, a group of prominent Chinese public interest lawyers released an open letter ahead of Hu's U.S. visit, calling on the government to put a stop to a growing tide of extrajudicial torture.

The letter was sent in response to details published last week of the torture of missing rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, but also mentioned Christian rights activist and scholar Fan Yafeng.

"On Dec. 9, 2010, Dr. Fan Yafeng, a former researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was taken to a secret location with a bag over his head and tortured for several days in a row," the letter said.

"[There is] a growing tendency for prisoners of conscience, rights activists and petitioners to suffer extra-judicial torture outside the usual locations of detention centers and labor camps," it said.

Fan, who also leads a Protestant house-church in Beijing, declined to comment on what happened during his period in detention.

"I can't take interviews right now, and I can't discuss this matter," Fan said from his Beijing home on Wednesday. "I know that I can't talk to you on this telephone line."

Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said: "I have heard from other lawyers here that he was taken away to a secret location, and that he was tortured."

Asked whether he too was currently under surveillance, Li said, "Yes. That is the situation."

Li's reticence was matched by Beijing-based rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, who said a number of his colleagues in the capital had managed to visit Fan.

"I visited him on Dec. 31," Jiang said. "We know that he suffered torture and mistreatment, but it's not convenient to go into detail. It was rather serious," he said.

Judicial methods

Many of those who signed the letter had first-hand experience of torture.

"As the number of civil rights movements in China increases, it is getting less convenient to use formal judicial methods,"  said Beijing-based lawyer Teng Biao.

"So they are using secret police and criminal gang members to carry out violence, threats, and intimidation against rights activists," he said.

The letter came as the wife of Sichuan-based environmental activist Tan Zuoren said the guards at his prison had refused to deliver medication to her husband.

"I offered to buy it and give it to them, or to give them the money to buy it, but they said they wouldn't have either," said Tan's wife, Wang Qinghua.

She said she plans to apply to the authorities for medical parole for Tan, who was handed a five-year jail term for subversion by a Sichuan court in February 2010.

Tan, an environmentalist, writer, and former editor of Literati magazine, was sentenced after he tried to set up an online database of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in spite of strong official pressure on parents to remain silent.

Amnesty International described his trial as unfair, saying that his treatment is a disturbing example of how the Chinese authorities use vague and overly broad laws to silence and punish dissenting voices.

Reported by Ding Xiao and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service, and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Luisetta Mudie.


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