Human rights will be on the agenda when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping comes to Washington on Valentine's Day, Vice President Joe Biden told human rights leaders Thursday.
Every major visit by a Chinese leader to the United States, or vice versa, raises the question of how strongly a U.S. administration will speak out on the issue of China's record on human rights, freedom of the press, and respect for the rule of law, and the Feb. 14 visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is no exception. Biden met with four human rights leaders Thursday at the White House to assure them the issue would not be given short shrift, according to the attendees.
"The vice president underscored the administration's belief in the universality of human rights and its commitment to human rights as a fundamental part of our foreign policy," the White House said in its official readout of the meeting. "He reiterated his view that greater openness and protection of universal rights is the best way to promote innovation, prosperity, and stability in all countries, including China."
The attendees at the meeting were Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Xiaorong Li, researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Benjamin Liebman, director of the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia University, and Jianying Zha, China representative of the India China Institute at The New School.
"They discussed the deterioration of China's human rights situation, prospects for reform, and recommendations for U.S. policy," the readout said.
In an interview with The Cable, Roth said Biden promised to focus on human rights both in his private meeting with Xi and in his public statements during the visit.
"The litmus test was: Is human rights going to be essential in the public message? Biden said all the right things and in that sense it was encouraging," said Roth.
Roth lamented the Obama administration's early stance on Chinese human rights, epitomized by widely criticized remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "[O]ur pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."
Clinton has been more critical lately of China's human rights record, including in May 2011, when she called China's crackdown on dissidents "a fool's errand."
"We were worried the administration was going to repeat the mistakes of the early years, but Biden said it was important that the U.S.-China relationship would be based on truth," Roth said. "The audience is not just Xi, it's the Chinese people and reformers in the Chinese government, of which there are many. They will feel abandoned if the Obama administration reverts to quiet diplomacy."
Biden told the attendees that his pitch to Xi would be threefold: He will stress that human rights are universal, that in order to maintain stability China needs to keep growing economically (and that Chinese leaders can't do that without expanding personal freedoms), and that China cannot become a more innovative society without liberalizing.
"That's a good argument because its self-interest based," Roth said.
The administration officials at the meeting included Biden's national security advisor Tony Blinken, NSC Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel, NSC Director Evan Medieros, and NSC Senior Director Samantha Power. Xi will also meet in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama.
"Biden made it clear that he will bring this up. What's not clear is what role Obama will play in all of this," said Roth.
Biden was also designated as the senior official charged with making public statements about Chinese human rights last May during the latest round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington.
Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) urged Obama to personally bring up the human rights issue in a letter Friday, obtained by The Cable.
"We urge you to convey to Vice President Xi the United States' strong opposition to China's ongoing human rights abuses, particularly political and religious repression," the senators wrote.
They referred to the State Department's 2010 Human Rights Report on China, which identified a "negative trend," in China "as the government took additional steps to rein in civil society..."
Michael J. Green, former NSC senior director for Asia during the George W. Bush administration, argued that the United States has less ability to influence China's human rights activities than it did a few years ago, mostly because of changes on the Chinese side.
"In some ways, the human rights situation in China is now worse," said Green, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In 2002, 2003, we could pass, in a summit meeting, an envelope to [then President] Jiang Zemin with a list of political prisoners, and some would be released.
"And it may have been a token, but it was something. We could talk about human rights. That doesn't happen anymore. We don't have the ability to get political prisoners released the way we did, because of, frankly, a more paranoid view of the Chinese government towards internal dissent in recent years."
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