Politico: Obama kowtows to China on human rights, critics say

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We’ve come a long way from “the butchers of Beijing.”

[Reposted from Politico  |  Michael Crowley  |  September 23, 2015]

That was the phrase Bill Clinton used in 1992 to describe China’s Communist leaders, who three years earlier had violently crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. But when Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Barack Obama’s Washington on Thursday, he’ll be greeted with a 21-gun salute and raised glasses at a Friday state dinner.

Even as memories of Tiananmen have faded here, human rights groups say that China is in the midst of one of its toughest political crackdowns since that bloody episode — and that the Obama administration is soft-pedaling its criticism of Xi’s government.

“Not since Mao Zedong has there been a Chinese leader who violates human rights with such impunity,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on human rights. “And our president will be smiling broadly for him.”

Under Xi, China has imprisoned hundreds of political dissidents, journalists and religious activists, according to human rights groups. In its latest annual report, Human Rights Watch called China an “authoritarian regime” that has “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years.”

Smith and other human rights advocates complain that U.S. officials impose no real penalties on China for its imprisonment and even execution of political and religious dissidents. They are joined by more partisan critics, like Florida Sen. and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who recently charged that Obama has paid only “lip service” to human rights during Xi's leadership .

Obama officials insist they constantly raise human rights concerns with Chinese leaders — both publicly and privately. And one key official suggested to POLITICO that Xi’s visit may yet surprise some skeptics.

“I hope people will let the summit happen and see what is actually said before rendering judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

“We've made clear to the Chinese that this summit is not about state dinners and red carpets — it’s about substance,” Malinowski said. The goal is for serious talk about friction points like cyber and maritime security. Human rights, he added, “is going to be one of the main subjects of discussion between President Obama and President Xi.”

Human-rights advocates will cheer if Obama raises rights issues — including the names of specific political prisoners — in private with the Chinese president or at their planned joint appearance on Friday. Beijing’s strong resistance to public discussion of the issue illustrates that it can have a real effect, they say.

In particular, they hope Obama will stress his opposition to a planned Chinese law imposing onerous new regulations and limits on the activities of civil society, charitable and nongovernmental organizations. Chinese media outlets have accused foreign-backed NGOs of trying to foment political unrest within the country.

On Tuesday the White House publicized a meeting National Security Adviser Susan Rice held with representatives of groups that would be affected by the law. But during a stop in Seattle that day, Xi made no apology for the draft law. “So long as their activities are beneficial to the Chinese people, we will not restrict or prohibit their operations,” he said — hardly reassuring words to the groups in question.

But Obama hasn’t threatened China with any specific penalty in response to the law. That reflects the president’s larger view that human rights should not define relations between the two countries or be tied to other issues like trade.

In general, Obama believes that the more China’s society — which was mostly closed to outsiders for centuries — engages with the world, the more it is likely to liberalize. He hinted at this view during a joint appearance with China’s then-president, Hu Jintao, in January 2011.

“There has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years since the first normalization of relations between the United States and China. And my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change,” Obama said.

In those remarks, Obama also frustrated human-rights champions who heard him suggest that China should be held to a different standard than other countries.

“China has a different political system than we do. China is at a different stage of development than we are. We come from very different cultures with very different histories,” Obama said.

Obama speaks more gently about China’s political system than he does about a more open rival like Russia, said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

“There’s a real tendency in the United States to engage in China exceptionalism,” Richardson said. “Think about how high the baseline of toughness is in criticism of Vladimir Putin in comparison to Xi Jinping.”

The reason for that is simple, Smith says: “Money. It’s profits over human rights.”

As China has boomed over the past generation — thanks to economic liberalization by its communist regime — it has yielded huge profits for U.S. businesses. On Tuesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that the business community has become “one of the key stakeholders” in Washington’s relationship with Beijing.

Obama’s overall strategy has been to engage China as much as possible, in the hope that integrating of its long-closed society with the outside world will gradually lead to political and economic reforms more in line with western views.

But critics say that approach has severe limits, particularly when it comes to rights and political freedom. Even as China has opened up its economy, its government — which argues that social stability is vital during a period of rapid economic change — has only tightened controls on dissent and free expression.

“He has hoped that being more friendly with China will make it more responsible,” Rubio wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month. “It hasn’t worked.”

Rubio added that, as president, he would order all U.S. officials to demand the unconditional release of political prisoners in their meetings with Chinese officials; impose visa bans on Chinese human-rights violators; and try to “empower” Chinese citizens to evade controls on the Internet and information in the country.

But presidential candidates have talked tough about China before and then failed to deliver.

After hammering President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election for alleged softness on the “Butchers of Beijing,” Bill Clinton initially followed through as president by linking China’s human-rights record to gaining status as a "most favored nation” U.S. trade partner.

But China didn’t change its policies, and the American business community protested. Clinton concluded that the fight was counterproductive, and in 1994 he announced his support for giving China preferred trade status irrespective of its human-rights record.

"This decision offers us the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human-rights and for the advancement of our other interests with China," Clinton said. "I think we have to see our relations with China within a broader context."

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