President Obama held a town-hall forum with Chinese students at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, and, during lengthy opening remarks, he touched on a topic that has given consternation to American diplomats in China before: human rights.
At the end of some discourse on American principles and belief in freedom around the world, Obama said: "America will always speak out for these core principles around the world...These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation."
While it may not seem like much--uttered anywhere else in the world, an almost passing reference to religious equality could me taken as milquetoast repetition of a general American ideal--but in China, where the government censors speech and locks up protesters for criticizing the ruling party's treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, it's worth noting. Especially since the U.S. relationship with China is such a critical one, and since China is so sensitive about the topic.
When Hillary Clinton went there in February, she made headlines by saying that Chinese human rights "can't interfere" with other issues--despite calls in the U.S. for her to raise it directly with her Chinese counterparts. Such is the precarious nature of U.S./Chinese interactions when it comes to human rights. Clinton did pledge, at the time, that the U.S. would continue to press China on the issue generally, and on Tibet (where the Chinese government quelled protests earlier this year), and that seems to be a part, at least, of what Obama was doing by bringing up this topic in his opening remarks at a town hall--careful not to back away from an articulation of human rights principles, if not actually pressing the Chinese government to do things differently.