Obama flat-footed on rights in China
  • Sun, 12/06/2009 - 11:00


Asia Times
Dec 5, 2009
By Verna Yu

HONG KONG - United States President Barack Obama's first official visit to China last month was a disappointment to many Chinese and international human-rights activists, who held out a glimmering hope that he might have championed their cause.

While he extolled the importance of universal values and Internet freedom in his "townhall meeting" with students (who were carefully vetted by Chinese authorities) in Shanghai - the first leg of his China tour, Obama failed to meet Chinese liberals and rights lawyers and did not confront the government in Beijing on its treatment of dissidents.

To ensure a cordial diplomatic atmosphere before his visit, Obama also postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, until after his trip.

Critics say this show of timidity has sent a dangerous message: that in seeking China's cooperation on economic and international issues, Obama would be willing to bend over backwards to avoid Beijing's displeasure.

"The failure to speak specifically about human-rights abuses in China, to comment on or meet with civil society activists and the mention of Tibet only as a part of China with no reference to the gross abuses there or in Xinjiang - all left the impression that he would only go as far as he thought his Chinese counterparts would allow," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at US-based Human Rights Watch.

Although Obama urged his hosts to hold dialogue with the Dalai Lama and became the first US president to publicly raise concern over Internet censorship, Chinese rights activists say he did not go far enough.

"What we need is clear and strong statements from the US and the international community that the world will not look the other way as Chinese authorities abuse the rights of their own citizens," said Wang Songlian, research coordinator for the China Human Rights Defenders advocacy group.

Jiang Tianyong, a human-rights lawyer who was detained for 13 hours on November 18, the day after Obama left China, said he saw no reason why human rights should be an issue that could not be openly discussed during Obama's visit.

"Talking about human rights is not a sensitive topic in China any more ... so for a president from the leader of the 'free world', he should talk about it in a big way. Why does it need to be talked about in secret?" Jiang asked. "I am very disappointed with him."

Jiang had just returned from a trip to America, where he testified before a congressional panel on human-rights abuses in China, including the issue of forced abortions and sterilizations.

He was one of five rights lawyers who were told there was a chance they would be able to meet Obama before he left China, but when he and legal scholar Fan Yafeng tried to meet the president they were taken away by police. Others were later told that could not meet them because of security concerns.

"We were joking: 'his security or ours?' Whereas we wouldn't pose a threat to his security, the fact that we couldn't meet him meant there was a problem with our security," he said.

Ironically, human rights and press freedoms in China seemed to have compromised even more due to Obama's visit.

Authorities placed many activists and so-called petitioners - peasants and workers who take grievances to Beijing - under heavy surveillance during the visit. According to rights groups' estimates, at least 20 activists and hundreds of petitioners were detained or put under house arrest days before he arrived. Some were forcibly taken out of Beijing.

One of the petitioners in Shanghai said they often get harassed by police when Western leaders or United Nations officials visit China
"If he was here just for his country's needs and did not lobby on the human-rights situation here, we would not welcome him, because we were even more restricted," she said.

Analysts say the West's soft approach did not start with Obama's visit. Wang said even in the lead-up to the Olympics, Western leaders did very little to push the Chinese government to uphold its promise of greater freedom.

With the US facing one of its worst economic crises ever, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi played down human-rights issues during their visits to China - the largest foreign holder of US debt - this year.

An economically stronger and politically more confident China appears to have little to fear from international criticism. Rights abuses continued, or some might say have got even worse, ahead of the Olympics and now Obama's visit - a far cry from the days when China released one or two dissidents as a gesture of goodwill before a high level US visit.

Activist Huang Qi was jailed for three years just days after Obama left and authorities extended the detention of Liu Xiaobo, one of China's most prominent dissidents, who had been detained without trial for nearly a year for the charge of subversion.

Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that even if the US had criticized China on the human-rights front, China could have ignored it.

"Now that China feels it has grown strong, even if the West had been more assertive [on rights issues], would it affect China? That is a big question mark," Lam said.

For the ordinary Chinese who were previously holding out hope that the West might speak out for their plight, the lesson now is that there is no one but themselves to rely on to fight for their cause.

"Any improvement in China's human-rights situation has to come from Chinese people themselves. Even President Obama cannot be relied upon," Jiang said.

Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.