Obama must challenge China on human rights

The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, arrives in Washington today for a red-carpet welcome as his country’s Nobel Peace Prize winner languishes in jail.

It is time for President Obama to stand up to China over its shameful human-rights record. Last week the Obama administration was talking up its human-rights stance and raising expectations that the president would be more demanding. He met personally with five Chinese human-rights advocates for an hour at the White House, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech at the State Department that the U.S. would continue to defend Chinese bloggers, political activists and religious believers persecuted for challenging the ruling party dogma.

Two years ago, she had set a different tone for the administration’s engagement with China on her first visit to Beijing when she said that human rights would not “interfere” with the dialogue on trade and other issues such as climate change and security.

So it is encouraging that the president has now begun to speak about “universal values” — which China’s Communist Party continues to officially deny, even though there are the beginnings of an internal debate on this.

Last week, when welcoming the fall of the Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Obama said: “each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not.”

He could have addressed those remarks to China, whose guiding principle is “socialist democracy.”

So Obama will be judged on the results of this visit by China’s president. At the very least, it should produce the resumption of a human-rights dialogue between the two countries that allows the U.S. to raise specific cases with China. And I look forward to the day when the Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo, will be released from jail.