Argument

The Head of China’s Petitioning Office

Why Barack Obama can't afford to take human rights off the agenda when he meets with Xi Jinping.

OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama has been the recipient of a fair amount of practical advice about promoting human rights in China: Be clear and principled in your first meeting; raise individual cases; link human rights to other issues, such as trade, that are important to Chinese leaders; and let those officials know that human rights will come up at every summit and every high-level meeting, whether with the U.S. trade representative, the energy secretary, or the secretary of defense. Above all, he has been told, don’t fall into the trap of imagining that unilateral concessions or personal relationships can move policy on issues of strategic importance in Beijing, where government remains a collective and hard-line enterprise.

On June 7 and 8 in California, Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and discuss, according to the White House, "ways to enhance cooperation, while constructively managing [their countries’] differences." Worryingly, however, some in the U.S. government say that human rights will not be on the agenda — apparently in the interests of what Xi calls a "new type of great-power relationship."

The United States should welcome this new relationship with China, but what would be truly new and refreshing would be one based on respect for the basic rights of China’s 1.3 billion people. At the Sunnylands estate in California this weekend, Obama has a chance to show understanding and empathy for a population that’s going through wrenching transitions similar to those that have captured his attention in other parts of the world. Senior U.S. officials understand that the United States is unlikely to achieve a host of diplomatic, economic, or strategic goals with a China that lacks an independent legal system, a free media, and the right to peacefully express views. More importantly, however, Obama should realize that he can serve as a symbol of hope to people who are in their sixth decade of repressive, one-party rule.

People across China are increasingly pushing the boundaries of what is possible, demonstrating not only keen interest in their human rights, but also the confidence that they, and not the Chinese government, are on the right side of history. Movements and protests like those by villagers in Wukan near Hong Kong or by urbanites in the southwestern city of Kunming have pushed Chinese leaders to be more responsive. Based on Chinese law enforcement reports, official and scholarly statistics estimate that 250 to 500 protests take place each day, with anywhere from 10 to tens of thousands of participants. These protesters take considerable risks in trying to exercise rights guaranteed to them under Chinese law.

Chinese people rely on democracies around the world, especially the United States, to support their quest for rights — and, increasingly, they use American mechanisms to do so. Prominent critics of the Chinese government, such as Hu Jia, Teng Biao, and Ai Weiwei, publish op-eds in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post partly because they cannot do so in the People’s Daily or other state-run Chinese media. These critics also believe that by explaining the realities of the ground situation in China to international policymakers in countries like the United States, they will in turn pressure the Chinese authorities to act.

And it’s not just high-profile critics employing these tools — ordinary Chinese citizens are doing so too. The website of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is a popular destination for those Chinese who want a reliable figure for air quality — or evidence that senior U.S. officials like Ambassador Gary Locke carry their own luggage and submit tax returns just like other U.S. citizens, and unlike Chinese officials. Over the course of a few days in May, the White House’s "We the People" petitioning website received 135,000 signatures from people in China seeking help in reactivating a criminal case gone cold. That website has become so popular among Chinese people with unresolved grievances that Chinese microblogging weibots dubbed Obama "head of China’s petitioning office," a joke that contrasts the White House’s openness with China’s unresponsive, unjust system.

Obama’s inconsistent approach to human rights in China is puzzling. Some of his most evocative foreign-policy efforts have involved emphasizing other countries’ most highly charged internal debates, such as his plea to Israelis to see the world through Palestinian eyes. Yet where is the speech calling on the Chinese to try to see the world through Uighur or Tibetan eyes? Obama advocated for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, yet said almost nothing about imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, who won the award in 2010, just a year after Obama did.

Even America’s aspirations for China seem less than those for other countries. Every week, the United States praises or criticizes other countries for the (mis)conduct of their elections. When I asked why the profoundly undemocratic recent leadership transition in China went unmentioned, a U.S. diplomat told me, "Because it’s impossible there will ever be elections in China."

Yes, Obama was not elected to lead the Chinese people — but, then again, neither was Xi. And yes, Chinese people don’t want to become Americans or simply adopt the U.S. system o
f governance. But absent a choice through real elections, no one can know what sort of government they would choose.

What the United States does know is that many Chinese want what Obama has argued passionately for on behalf of Americans and others around the world — the rule of law, an end to corruption, a healthy environment, a chance at a better life. Many Chinese have been tortured and have spent long periods in prison in pursuit of these principles. Obama should show solidarity with these brave Chinese by making sure that Xi leaves California knowing that basic rights are a nonnegotiable part of the new relationship.

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