Hu Smiles, 'Wins'

Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to the White House is being touted as a victory for Beijing.

2011.01.20
hustatedinner305.jpg U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the White House, Jan. 19, 2011.
AFP

While president Hu Jintao has admitted that China still has much to do to improve human rights, the state-run media back home has lauded his U.S. visit as a "masterstroke," drowning out appeals from beleaguered rights activists.

"China has always protected and promoted human rights to the utmost of its abilities," Hu told a news conference following a summit with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

"China regards respect for human rights as a universal principle, but at the same time believes that the universal principle of human rights should be integrated into the action situation of each country," he said.

Hu's approach, which came amid all the pomp of a formal welcome ceremony and a glitzy state dinner at the White House, was similar to that taken by previous Chinese leaders when confronted on the topic during visits to the United States.

While Hu may seem stiff by Western standards, and lacks the polished media style of Obama, his unruffled manner and set piece photographs against a background were used to powerful effect by the ruling Communist Party's propaganda machine back home.

"China and the U.S. have had some differences over human rights, but China is willing to enter into a dialogue with the United States about human rights on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in each other's affairs," Hu told reporters.

Dogged by protests

In Washington, international human rights groups and political exiles have haunted Hu during his four-day state visit, calling—among other things—for the release of Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and missing lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and more freedom for Tibetans.

But perhaps more importantly, their calls are being echoed ever more loudly by a rights lobby inside China that is under increasing pressure from the authorities, yet still finding a voice on the international stage.

"During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington this week, Obama must send a strong and clear public message that his administration is committed to standing up for the freedom of Chinese citizens," the Chinese Human Rights Defenders group said in a statement ahead of Hu's departure.

"The U.S. government should take this opportunity to articulate a coherent and strategic approach to the promotion of human rights in China, a central part of which should be direct and vocal support for China’s civil society," it said.

And Chinese constitutional scholar Zhang Bohu said, "You can't use the excuse of concentrating on economic development as a way of avoiding substantive human rights problems."

"It's very good that Hu Jintao described human rights as a universal principle. I hope that ... he will use his political position to bring in political reforms in China, and that it's not just words," he said.

"The Chinese people have been longing for democracy for a very long time. This year marks the centenary of the 1911 revolution. Chinese people's struggle for freedom and democracy has lasted now for a whole century."

Political stalemate?

In the United States, Hu's trip was seen as a political stalemate by some commentators, who said Obama's attempts to put pressure on Beijing over Washington's concerns about military expansion, trade and currency, and human rights had largely failed.

"Obama fought the good fight and pushed—unlike the passive posture he adopted a year ago in Beijing," said Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"But he had to get concrete concessions from Hu to register a success, while all Hu had to do was smile without giving in and make sure that mutual relations didn’t deteriorate."

The reaction in China's state-controlled media seemed to bear this view out.

The official Xinhua news agency hailed the visit as a diplomatic "masterstroke" in one headline, while political analysis on flagship talk shows focused on the level of respect accorded to China by the pomp and ceremony laid on in Washington.

As usual, discussion of the more contentious matters in the bilateral relationship, including human rights, was either nonexistent or tightly controlled.

Political pundit Sun Zhe told state television that the visit showed that China had become a "respectable rival for the United States through its own efforts."

Tong Xiaoling, a researcher with a government think-tank, the China Institute for International Studies, agreed, citing a private dinner hosted by Obama on Tuesday night before the formal welcome ceremony.

The dinner embodied "the close ties between the two countries as well as the good personal interactions between the two leaders," said Tong.

Talking to the people

But the CHRD website called on the United States to ignore the official line on human rights, and instead reach out directly to the Chinese people by meeting regularly with activists.

"Take every opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese people, and not just to the government," it urged Washington.

"Although the Chinese government appears confident and powerful internationally, its greatest fear is of its own people," the group said.

It said Beijing is investing "huge amounts of money" in tamping down dissent and silencing calls for reform.

In spite of its efforts, Chinese citizens still manage to stage tens of thousands of mass protests annually, the group said.

These ranged from workers’ strikes over lack of labor protection, to ethnic minority protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, to demonstrations organized by teachers and military veterans and those affected by pollution, it said.

"The U.S. government’s resources to promote human rights and rule of law in China should focus on civil society organizations and actors," the statement said.

In a similar statement aimed at the international community, 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.

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

No breakthrough on rights

U.S.-based commentators said even before Hu arrived that the Hu-Obama talks were unlikely to yield significant progress on human rights.

Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, Associate Director of the Center for U.S.-China Policy Studies at the University of California in San Francisco, said China's human rights issues were already well-publicized.

"[They] include China's controls over the flow of information on the Internet, freedom of expression among ordinary people, and the freedom of the media," said Blanchard, speaking through a Chinese interpreter for RFA's Mandarin service.

"But there will be no breakthrough on any of those issues during this visit of Hu Jintao to the United States," he said.

"The Sino-U.S. relationship hasn't been very friendly in recent years, but it hasn't been cold either. And that situation's not likely to change because of Hu Jintao's visit," Blanchard said.

According to Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, China's leaders are only too aware of the scale of the problems they face.

"The biggest problem China faces is that it doesn't know where it's going," Schell said in comments broadcast in Chinese by RFA's Mandarin service.

"What's frightening is that if the economy collapses, China won't have a set of values that is capable of maintaining social stability, either in the political system or in the form of religious beliefs," Schell said through a Chinese interpreter.

Reported by CK, He Ping, Gao Shan and Zi Jing for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Bi Zimo, Ho Shan, Wei Ling and Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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