Obama On China, Human Rights

Chinese human rights violations have continued to be for the Obama administration, as they have been in the past, a sticky issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised it in February with the Chinese, but made it clear that human rights can't interfere with other issues like the global financial crisis, climate change, and North Korea.

It's widely believed that the nation of 1.3 billion is a human rights abuser, in Tibet and elsewhere (see the Washington Post's coverage of jailed/disappeared protestors leading up to and during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing), but Washington has been tentative to broach the subject, for obvious strategic reasons.

President Obama seemed more willing to talk about it today as he opened the U.S./China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, attended by Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo. Here's how Obama raised the human rights issue in his remarks:

I have no illusion that the United States and China will agree on every issue, nor choose to see the world in the same way.  This was already noted by our previous speaker.  But that only makes dialogue more important -- so that we can know each other better, and communicate our concerns with candor.

For instance, the United States respects the progress that China has made by lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.  Just as we respect China's ancient and remarkable culture, its remarkable achievements, we also strongly believe that the religion and culture of all peoples must be respected and protected, and that all people should be free to speak their minds.  And that includes ethnic and religious minorities in China, as surely as it includes minorities within the United States.

Support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America.  Our nation is made up of immigrants from every part of the world.  We have protected our unity and struggled to perfect our union by extending basic rights to all our people.  And those rights include the freedom to speak your mind, to worship your God, and to choose your leaders.  These are not things that we seek to impose -- this is who we are.  It guides our openness to one another and to the world.

Obama couched his human rights statements in praise for China's efforts to alleviate poverty; he called for candor, and devoted a full two paragraphs of his speech to the topic, even as he hosted two Chinese officials...perhaps a signal that, while his administration is focused on cooperating with China, it hasn't forgotten that underlying tension.