By Julian Pecquet - 05/11/12 11:05 AM EDT
House Republicans plan to use the case of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng to attack President Obama's human-rights record next week.
The House Foreign Affairs panel on human rights has scheduled a hearing Tuesday that will examine U.S. diplomats' handling of Chen's case as well as what the United States is doing to protect his friends and extended family from Chinese repression.
The hearing will also focus on Chen’s fight against forced abortions and sterilizations, which Republicans say is supported by a United Nations program that Democrats want to keep funding.
“I think America is losing its reputation and image on human rights,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a member of a separate panel that held a hearing on the issue last week.
The Obama administration disagrees.
The president “is focused on the need to advance U.S. interests in our broad-based relationship with China, very important economic, diplomatic relationships with China,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press briefing. “He has and will continue to make a priority in that relationship or part of that relationship an open and frank discussion of our concerns about human rights.”
Presidents in both parties have come under criticism for not standing up to China more on human rights as economic ties between the two countries have strengthened. China is now one of the largest trading partners with the United States, and it has helped finance U.S. deficit spending by purchasing an estimated $2 trillion in U.S. bonds.
Obama has come under the same criticism, though in recent months he has taken steps that suggest a tougher approach with China.
Last month the administration signaled a shift in its policy with Taiwan, suggesting it would sell F-16 fighters to the country. The administration also joined a World Trade Organization case against China’s restrictions on “rare earth materials” used to make cellphones and flat-screen televisions.
Providing refuge at the U.S. Embassy to Chen, who had escaped house arrest, was initially seen as another sign of a tougher line.
But Republicans say the White House should have secured deeper commitments from China that Chen’s family and supporters would be treated well after he leaves China for a sabbatical at a U.S. university. The U.S. negotiated the exit from China for Chen.
Chen himself has suggested doubts about the deal, telling Reuters by phone on Thursday from a Beijing hospital that Chinese authorities have “already started taking revenge.”
It’s not just Republicans who question whether the administration got enough from China either.
Amnesty International has called China's pledge “empty” as long as the government keeps his wider family in detention and retaliates against his supporters. The group argues the U.S. hurried talks in order to reach a deal by the end of a summit in Beijing attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Smith said the administration should have looked for pressure points to ensure the safety of Chen and his family, such as possibly delaying Defense Minister Leon Panetta's meeting Monday with his Chinese counterpart Gen. Liang Guanglie in Washington, D.C.
“That's something that could have been postponed until this was resolved, especially the extended family,” Smith said. “We need to have some linkage if we're going to delink trade, which I have always felt was the most efficacious tool that we had.”
It’s not the first time Obama has been criticized on human rights and China.
A visit to the United States last year by President Hu Jintao angered human-rights advocates after Obama chose not to publicly mention the 2010 Nobel peace laureate, imprisoned human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo.
Obama also defended China's “different political system” and “very different culture” during a press conference with Hu, resulting in a scathing Washington Post editorial.
Smith and Wolf say they believe the administration should be more forceful when dealing with China.
They also hope to use next week’s hearing to criticize the White House on abortion rights.
Chen has protested China’s one-child policy, which Republicans say results in forced abortions, and was sentenced to 51 months in prison shortly after filing a lawsuit against local officials’ application of the policy.
Republicans argue the administration is too soft on China when it comes to the policy.
“They talk about a human-rights guy named Chen rather than his mission,” said Smith, who compared the approach to fighting for Nelson Mandela without mentioning apartheid. “Nobody in the administration has linked it to his cause. I find that appalling.”
Smith assumes the reason for that is Democrats' support for the U.N. Population Fund, which enables millions of women around the world to have access to contraception, prenatal care and screenings. The program is controversial because it operates in China, whose single-child policy is seen as incompatible with U.S. notions of human rights.
That fight is expected to resurface this year as House Republicans seek once again to slash the program in their spending bill for the State Department and foreign operations.
Democrats in Congress view Tuesday's hearing as just another partisan attack.
“If it looks like, smells like and acts like politics, then it’s likely political,” said a senior Democratic aide.
Yet some Democrats also worry U.S. administrations have gone soft on human rights given the broader trade between the United States and China.
“Instead of making China more free,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement ahead of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's visit in February, “China's expanding trade relations through China's membership in the [World Trade Organization] appear to have given China's leaders greater confidence to trample on the rights of its citizens and dash any hopes for democratic reform.”