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Pushing China, quietly

President Obama stood up for human rights in China in his talks with President Hu Jintao, but it was done in private.

January 21, 2011

There are many metrics by which to judge the summit between President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, but one has attracted the most attention: Did Obama adequately stand up for human rights in China? Much as we would have preferred a more full-throated criticism of China's abysmal record — including the imprisonment of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo — we recognize that Obama was required to balance principle and protocol.

The principle part took place largely in private. Describing his talks with Hu, Obama said: "I reaffirmed America's fundamental commitment to the universal rights of all people. That includes basic human rights like freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association and demonstration, and of religion — rights that are recognized in the Chinese constitution." At a joint news conference, Obama also called for greater dialogue between the government of China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Could the president have been more passionate and pointed? Of course. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a speech in which she said that "America will continue to speak out and to 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."

That was full-throated, and we were pleased to hear it. Obama, by contrast, was more oblique, in deference to the fact that his words would be weighed more carefully by the Chinese. Nevertheless, Hu seems to have received the message. He acknowledged at the news conference that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights." Brief and not very specific, it was still a remarkable admission, even when discounted by the fact that Hu was addressing an American audience.

The history of American foreign policy is replete with examples of human rights being sidelined by strategic or economic considerations. In the 1970s, for example, President Gerald Ford was accused of prizing detente with the Soviet Union so much that he refused to meet the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The argument for pragmatism holds in the contemporary relationship between China and the United States. The two nations are economically interdependent; Chinese cooperation is vital in restraining the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Even so, Obama called Hu's attention to China's violations of human rights. He was judicious and judgmental at the same time.

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