Talk Softly; Obama Talks Human Rights in China

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   For President Obama, speaking openly about the Chinese government’s human rights record during a town hall on its own soil was an exercise in moderation.

“We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don’t believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation,” Mr. Obama told the crowd of several hundred gathered at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai Monday.

“These freedoms of expression and worship; of access to information and political participation, we believe are universal rights,” he said. “They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities; whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation.”    

The President was on his first trip to China and eager to continue a dialogue with a country so crucial to the US’s efforts on a range of issues from climate change to Iran to economic matters. Trade between the US and China amounts to over $400 billion a year.

Like President George W. Bush before him, the President was, analysts say, obliged to speak openly about China’s spotty human rights record during his visit. The President did so; invoking Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and even his own historic rise to the presidency. However, he left out the festering conflict between China and Tibet.

Even before he left for Asia, the President appeared to be wary of stoking the Chinese when he chose not meet with Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, when he was in the US in October. Mr. Obama is the first President to have made such move since 1991.

The decision “was part of an overall approach that the administration had to convince China to re-engage with the Dalai Lama’s representatives to be more forthcoming and more sincere in that dialogue,” says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But, it’s a strategy that Glaser says has back-fired, “I think China’s position has hardened, and this was outside the expectations of the administration.”

Nonetheless, the President has formulated his own approach to the Communist regime, “[T]he United States insists we do not seek to contain China’s rise,” he said. “We know that more is to be gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide.”