Obama meets the Dalai Lama (updated)

On the road and changing planes, let me take four minutes on Boingo to refer readers to an op-ed yesterday by Jerome A. Cohen, who has been involved for decades is the campaign to expand citizen rights and the rule of law in China, in the South China Morning Post. You have to register or subscribe (worth it!) to read the whole thing, but the headline and subhead get the idea across.

His article is called "Fight the Good Fight: As China rises, foreigners need to keep protesting against cases of injustice on the mainland." It argues that the United States should continue the same contradictory-sounding but strategically sensible policy toward China that it has more or less maintained throughout the past 30 years. This involves looking for areas of cooperation wherever possible -- on financial and business matters, on environmental challenges, on strategic measures like those I discuss at the end of this article. In general, that means that the United States should treat China as a potential partner unless compelled to do otherwise.

But American leaders should also resolutely speak up for values the country is supposed to believe in -- individual liberties, religious tolerance, due process, freedom of expression -- and not be afraid to criticize Chinese policy when these issues are at stake. Thus the Chinese government will complain every time an American president meets the Dalai Lama -- but the United States must continue those meetings in consonance with its own beliefs*, despite the protests, and continue to complain when Chinese dissidents are locked up, as in the Liu Xiaobo case. Why make gestures like these? According to Cohen:

"Despite the regime's censorship, [such protests] boost the sagging morale of those in mainland China who hope for freedom and due process of law, as the country's beleaguered rights lawyers and activists emphasise [sic -- Cohen is American but the SCMP is in Hong Kong!]. Moreover, they give the world a fuller picture of contemporary China than that provided by the Olympics, the Confucius Institutes that the government has established abroad and its mind- boggling economic accomplishments. China's quest for "soft power" - international influence based on more than military and economic coercion - will always be frustrated as long as there are continuing foreign protests against abuses suffered by dissidents, religious figures, criminal defence lawyers and others.

"Finally, if stated with requisite humility, public reaffirmation of the basic human decencies that every government should accord its own citizens as well as foreigners reminds all countries, including the US, of the importance of practising what we preach to China."

As is evident from this last line, Cohen is not blind to America's deviations from its own ideals. Anyhow, this is what to think about today's meeting, as I sign off and run to the next plane.
* To be clear, those legitimate American beliefs do not involve support for "splittism," the main Chinese government charge against the Dalai Lama. Rather they involve respect for him as a spiritual leader, a view 100% rejected by the Chinese government but accepted in most of the rest of the world.

UPDATE: Jerome Cohen's full essay is available here in English with links to versions in both simplified and traditional Chinese. Thanks to ESZ.