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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/20/2011

Clinton, Obama, China and Human Rights

By Glenn Kessler

"That doesn't mean that questions of Taiwan and Tibet and human rights, the whole range of challenges that we often engage on with the Chinese are not part of the agenda either. But we pretty much know what they're going to say. ....Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Feb. 20, 2009

"What I believe is that the United States must always stand for our values, and therefore we must raise human rights [with China], which remains at the heart of American diplomacy. But we cannot say that that's all we're going to be talking about, or the fact that we disagree there eliminates the need for us to work together on climate change, North Korea, Iran and so much else."
--Secretary Clinton, January 19, 2011

The evolution of the Obama administration's human rights policy is well represented by these two quotes by Secretary Clinton. The 2009 comment came on her first overseas trip, and it generated immediate angst in the human rights community. The other comment came this week, as Clinton made the rounds of the morning television shows to discuss the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington. How did the administration get from human rights "can't interfere" to calling the issue "the heart of American diplomacy"?

The Facts

Clinton made the 2009 statement in a cramped conference room in Seoul, South Korea, on the eve of her first visit to China as Secretary of State. She was meeting with the diplomatic reporters traveling with her, in an unscripted on-the-record setting known as a "roundtable" that her predecessors had often conducted with State Department reporters. An instant debate later broke out among her staff about whether she was being too blunt or honest. Certainly, the diplomatic fallout was intense, with human rights groups complaining the administration was letting China off the hook. Whether Clinton had any regrets is unclear, but it is telling that she has never held another on-the-record roundtable with the traveling press.

Clinton's stumble was emblematic of the Obama administration's initial approach to human rights. White House officials came into office suspicious of former President George W. Bush's "freedom agenda"--not because they were against democracy, but because they believed it had been discredited by Bush's tone and by his other policies (such as allowing practices akin to torture to be used against detainees at Guantanamo Bay). They felt they needed to rebuild U.S. credibility on human rights, with one step being the pledge (still unfilled) to close the Guantanamo facility.

Administration officials also naturally wanted to engage with other countries before they started criticizing them. Clinton, as the chief U.S. diplomat, often led the way, appearing to play down human rights issues in such countries as Egypt and Turkey that had been raised in reports issued by her own department. The administration, still in the midst of conducting policy reviews, even indicated a willingness to consider easing sanctions on international pariahs such as Burma and Sudan. Officials insisted that human rights was important to the administration, and certainly rhetorical attention was paid to the issue in speeches, but for all practical purposes, it did not appear to be a central part of the administration's foreign-policy agenda.

Perhaps the low point came when Clinton gave a speech on human rights toward the end of 2009, when she spoke of "principled pragmatism" in dealing such as China and Russia. "This week we observe Human Rights Week," she declared. "At the State Department, though, every week is Human Rights Week."

Then, at the start of 2010, came Google's dispute with China.

The Internet giant announced that because Gmail accounts held by human rights activists in China had been breached, it was no longer willing to continue censoring search results for its Chinese users. The incident gave Clinton an opening to begin to put the administration's fingerprints on a human-rights policy--something that officials could define as their own, not something they had inherited from Bush.

In a landmark speech that defined Internet freedom as a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy, Clinton repeatedly named countries, including China, which had thwarted progress. ''Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society," Clinton said. "Countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.'' She warned "countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."

This new assertiveness was followed by a July speech in Krakow, Poland, in which Clinton denounced a worldwide crackdown on citizens groups. She noted that 50 governments had issued new restrictions on non-government organizations in recent years, singling out several examples. "We must be wary of the steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit," Clinton said. In the case of China, she pointedly mentioned the case of writer Liu Xiaobo, weeks before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The two speeches were then followed by President Obama's lengthy section on human rights in his annual speech to the U.N. General Assembly, a tough Clinton address on civil society in the Middle East and last Friday's speech by Clinton on China. The subtext of the messages: There is an ideological competition over the vision for the future, and the United States will stand with people who want to register their concern with government policies.

"America will continue to speak out and press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists, when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship, when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government's positions," Clinton said in advance of Hu's visit.

Clinton added: "Many in China resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on their sovereignty. But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens."

There are still inconsistencies in the administration's approach. On a trip to Bahrain in December, Clinton notably soft-peddled the kingdom's crackdown on dissidents even when confronted by an opposition parliamentarian at a public forum. And, though there was tough talk before Hu's arrival, at a joint news conference on Wednesday the president did not use the public platform to press Hu for greater human rights in China. Obama instead said China had evolved over the past three decades and disagreement on human rights "doesn't prevent us from cooperating in these other critical areas." Public pressure is sometimes necessary. Despite Obama's vow to push forward on a human rights dialogue with China, some of the Wikileaks cables indicated such dialogues behind closed doors are largely a farce.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a case of withholding judgment. The administration in the past year has begun to articulate a distinct vision on human rights. A strong speech is a good start, but has human rights truly become the "heart" of American diplomacy? How does the administration balance national security interests--such as a need for Egypt's help on Israel-Palestinian peace efforts--with its promotion of citizen freedom? Will the president and Secretary Clinton speak as forcefully in public about the human-rights failings of governments when they are standing next to their counterparts? We will be watching closely.

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By Glenn Kessler  | January 20, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Other Foreign Policy, Verdict Pending, issue context  
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The acid test of our alleged "commitment" to human rights are the Palestinians. Since we have determined that Palestinians are not human beings, but rather Untermenschen on Israel's Lebensraum, they have no human rights.

Posted by: Garak | January 20, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

The WaPo has their own "FactChecker"??? That's hilarious.

I suspect they must be attempting to offset the fact that most of their readers have more faith in Supermarket Tabloids when it comes to truthfulness and integrity.

Posted by: hunter340 | January 20, 2011 8:25 AM | Report abuse

This was a strange choice for a column. Hillary said one time that she'd like to 'press' China on human rights abuses, while admitting another time that little can be done about the problem.

Why withhold judgement? In fact, why judge? A statement of vague feelings and another of a vague implementation plan don't have to be consistent.

Fact Checker is better suited to claims involving hard figures or other objective data.

Posted by: angrydoug1 | January 20, 2011 8:32 AM | Report abuse

it seems that with our use of gitmo and other black prisons we have no right to lecture anyone else on human rights violations. we should clean our own mess before feeling superior to anyone else.

Posted by: blinwilly | January 20, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

The U.S. or any other country or government has no business attempting to tell another country or government how to govern its people...sticking our noses into other peoples business can, will, and has started wars, don't we have enough of that right now, besides "We the People" don't want any more war as we don't even want the unproductive wars the U.S. is raging right now! The arms makers sell to both sides, control them and you could pretty much end about 95% of war today. Its all just another way to make a profit through the suffering of the people! So, what makes us, the U.S., any better in or on human rights than any other country in this system? They profit on the backs of the people, we profit on the backs of the people, although in different ways its still a shame on both sides, so don't point fingers..."Judge Not," sounds easy, but to not do something is the hardest thing possible for mankind!

Posted by: naturalmystic072010 | January 20, 2011 10:15 AM | Report abuse

Start a war based on "freedom agenda"? That's the low point of American diplomacy. May be when Clinton spoke of "principled pragmatism", she's speaking the truth and what's in her heart.

I hope our foreign policy is based on pragmatism and not to be hi-jacked by a specific interest group no matter how lofty its goal is. To start a meaningful discussion with people living in developing and poor countries, we have to talk more about personal freedoms, such as adequate health care, fighting crimes, education, job opportunities and etc, more than just “human rights” as we choose to define it here. With nearly every Washington Post article filled with pomp of human rights, should we ask is that what the average Chinese ask for these days, publicly or silently? Or it just that we wish them should ask because we think it is important.

Posted by: in_starbucks | January 20, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Until the USofA decides to fix our human rights issues; we should keep our noses out of others business.

Posted by: ddoiron1 | January 20, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

It's a bit ironic that the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize is having a nice dinner with the guy who is imprisoning the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Posted by: tomtildrum | January 21, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

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