President Obama and China's Human Rights: Real Change or Rehashed Rhetoric?

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By T. Kumar, International Advocacy Director

The headlines are clear. President Obama exerted pressure on Chinese President Hu Jintao about China’s human rights record during this week’s summit.

While Amnesty International applauds President Obama for speaking publicly about human rights during the press conference, the question remains: will US policy in practice reflect President Obama’s rhetoric? The challenge for President Obama is to convert the overly positive publicity into real concrete action to bring improvements in China’s human rights.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo remains locked up in China.

The rhetoric at the press briefing should be matched by incorporating human rights into every aspect of U.S. policy, not only limited to the State Department’s human rights bureau and annual human rights dialogue.  Human rights should be part of the policy brief for all the U.S. departments that interact with the Chinese government. Importantly, human rights should play an equal and important part of the US – China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Prior to the state visit, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations urged President Obama to meet former political prisoners from China who are currently residing in the United States. President Bush met these political prisoners before his trip to China to attend the Olympics. President Obama ignored our request for reasons known only to him. By refusing to meet these political prisoners, the administration missed an opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness by which the United States views human rights in China. President Obama’s inaction also raises the question whether he is hesitant to be tough on human rights, in the absence of giving speeches.

The repartee between the Presidents was covered extensively; but the question looms: did President Obama get any commitment from the Chinese president for any tangible improvement in human rights? Did President Obama set any benchmarks or timelines? There are several areas to focus starting with re-education through labor camps, where Chinese authorities arbitrarily detain around 200,000 people, to the execution of political prisoners, and the continued imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

President Hu Jintao acknowledged the human rights issues in response to reporters’ questions. Will President Obama do his part to translate his human rights rhetoric into practice?