Will President Obama ignore human rights in China?

February 14, 2012

Will President Obama ignore human rights in China?

Human rights advocates, like everyone else, will be reading between the lines of what will undoubtedly be a highly scripted first visit by China’s Vice President Xi Jinping to the White House to meet President Obama on February 14.  The visit will be a debut of sorts for the vice president as he prepares to become the next president of China in early 2013. Although their meeting is unlikely to stray from front-burner trade issues, it presents an important opportunity for President Obama to remind Mr. Xi that China’s deteriorating human rights situation is a threat to long-term political stability. The Chinese government need not look farther than Egypt for a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of repressive rule.

Yet the signals so far from the White House have not been encouraging. Despite the deteriorating human rights situation in China, the Obama administration has rebuffed repeated requests by human rights organizations to meet political prisoners from China—even as President Obama prepares to roll out the red carpet to welcome the vice president. Instead, in what may be the truest indication of U.S. priorities, President Obama is creating a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate China’s unfair trading practices. The administration has no such plan to investigate human rights violations, including the sentencing of several peaceful activists to long term imprisonment, who join tens of thousands of political prisoners in China.

So far at least 20 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest to the continuing assault on their rights. Uighurs from the restive Xinjiang province continue to endure harsh persecution. China’s government routinely crushes religious freedom, torturing Falung Gong prisoners and causing numerous deaths. China alone executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, and an estimated 200,000 people have been locked up in the country’s labor camps without charge or trial. Women are still compelled to undergo forced abortion and sterilization under the government’s family planning policies. The list human rights abuses goes on and on.

President Obama has a meaningful opportunity to express concern about human rights early in Vice President Xi’s tenure; one suggestion is for President Obama to make human rights a part of the Security and Economic Dialogue with China. The human rights community will be watching closely to see whether President Obama addresses these critical questions.