Clinton, Obama, China and Human Rights
"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"?
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.
Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter @GlennKesslerWP
| January 20, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Other Foreign Policy, Verdict Pending, issue context
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