When the White House invited me to the state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, I knew that I was being used as a symbol — to signal a tougher approach on human rights. The Obama administration was widely seen as having flubbed the November 2009 summit in China. In the lead-up to his visit, President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had insisted that human rights "can't interfere" with other U.S. interests in China. The administration hoped this soft approach would win points that could be cashed in at the summit, but instead it looked weak and unprincipled.
This time, the administration was determined to do better. Before the summit, Clinton gave a strong speech defending civil society and Internet freedom, and Obama met with human rights experts for advice. During the summit, Obama stood at Hu's side and stressed the "universal rights of all people." Mentioning freedoms of speech, press, association and religion, he anticipated the false claim that these rights are foreign impositions by noting they are all "recognized in the Chinese constitution." In response, Hu did not announce prisoner releases or offer concrete reforms, but he did repeat the party line that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights."
The administration's decision to extend me an invitation reflected this new and more assertive approach — another statement that human rights should be a normal part of the U.S.-China conversation. That's what I wanted too, but I must admit I didn't have high hopes for the evening.
And things didn't start off auspiciously. As I approached Hu, I couldn't help feeling misgivings about meeting him in such glitzy circumstances. After all, this was a man whose government has launched an intensifying crackdown on dissent that began in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and continues to this day. But I donned my diplomatic facade, explained that I represented Human Rights Watch and said that I hoped human rights groups could discuss abuses with the Chinese government in the same way we do with governments around the world, including the United States. He returned a blank smile, as if my comments were lost in the translation. The pace of the receiving line kept our conversation perfunctory, and he wasn't to be found during the cocktail hour.
But when it came time for dinner, I was pleasantly surprised. Rather than being relegated to one of the dinner's satellite rooms, I found myself seated in the main State Dining Room, at a table with the White House China director, Jeffrey Bader; the U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr.; and China's ambassador to Washington, Zhang Yesui. This was another statement, and a strong one.
At the table, the conversation became more serious. I spent most of the evening immersed in a lengthy discussion with Zhang. This in itself was surprising. A prospective future foreign minister, Zhang had avoided meeting with Human Rights Watch during his tenure in Washington and, before that, while he was China's ambassador to the United Nations. Rather than blanch at having me as his dinner partner, he launched into a spirited defense of China's imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was the principal drafter of the pro-democracy Charter 08 and is now serving an 11-year prison term.
I said I found it puzzling that the Chinese government would prosecute a writer for merely expressing his peaceful views on reforming China. Zhang tried to convince me that Liu was dangerous, citing various positions that Liu had allegedly taken, none of which amounted to advocating, let alone inciting, violence. If the Chinese government does not like Liu's views, I suggested, it should rebut them, not make them criminal. Zhang insisted that these ideas, and Liu's promotion of them, endangered China's stability.
Neither of us convinced the other, but I came away knowing that, with the Obama administration's backing, I had been able to explain to a senior Chinese official why his government's treatment of Liu was a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression.
The conversation about Liu led to a broader discussion about human rights conditions in China: the progress that China has made; the great distance it still has to go. I accepted Zhang's point that critical observers must be conscious of China's context, but I noted that it would help if the Chinese government accepted more regular exchanges with human rights organizations. Zhang didn't dismiss this idea out of hand, but it was clearly a matter that would require assent from people above his pay scale.
After dinner, as I waited in the East Room for the superb jazz concert led by Herbie Hancock, I had a chance to chat further with Obama. I thanked him for being more outspoken on human rights in China and for finding a way to discuss the issue that was genuine and heartfelt.
But, of course, talk is only the beginning. Ultimately, the test of a dialogue's productiveness is a change in behavior. Given China's increasingly tough restrictions on basic freedoms, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.