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Fact-checking the New York Times: Did Hu really just shift China’s position on human rights?

Fact-checking the New York Times: Did Hu really just shift China’s position on human rights?

The most interesting moment in an otherwise subdued — dare I say dull — press conference by U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao came when a Bloomberg reporter insisted that Hu answer a fellow journalist’s question about human rights.

Hu, blaming the translation, claimed he hadn’t heard the question (to audible titters among the assembled press corps). He went on to give China’s standard answer on human rights, which is basically, "Blah blah we’ve always respected human rights (yet we’re also improving), China faces unique circumstances as a developing country, we favor dialogue, etc."

He also said that "China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights," which caught the ear of New York Times reporter Michael Wines, who sees the remark as "a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate."

"Until Wednesday," Wines continues, "recognizing credos like democracy and human rights as ‘universal values’ had been all but taboo in Chinese political discourse, although China has signed the United Nations convention that enshrines the principle of universal human rights."

Not so, points out Forbes correspondent Gady Epstein, who passes along this Washington Post article from 2009, which discusses China’s submission (pdf) to a U.N. review panel:

"China respects the principle of the universality of human rights," the document states. But it adds: "Given differences in political systems, levels of development and historical and cultural backgrounds, it is natural for countries to have different views on the question of human rights."

That’s almost exactly what Hu said. I suppose it’s different when the president himself says so with all the eyes of the world upon him, but let’s not kid ourselves about whether China has made some profound new commitment to human rights and democracy. For all its very real successes in promoting development, the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of relinquishing its stranglehold on political power anytime soon, if ever. Wake me up when they stop throwing political prisoners in jail, beating people in the streets, censoring the press, and generally evincing little regard for the Chinese people’s ability to chart their own future.