US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives for a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing, February 21, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

When did U.S. diplomats forget that a warm welcome in Beijing -- one laden with platitudes about pulchritude -- is not necessarily a good thing? It's not that greater cooperation on a variety of issues is unimportant. But coming from a representative of an administration that promised to take the high road on human rights, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's comments last week in China are surprising. Clinton asserted that discussions about human rights shouldn't interfere with other issues on the U.S.-China agenda. What might have been intended as determined pragmatism in fact suggests a dangerous disregard for the facts -- namely, that the United States is dealing with a government that regularly crushes any real or perceived challenge to its grip on power.

We don't know whether Clinton privately emphasized the importance of human rights to her hosts. But what was said publicly, perhaps to quell the apprehension of the Politburo, came across as callous to the victims of human rights abuses. This is a shame and a change of tack for Clinton, who has previously lauded China's human rights defenders. It's a change for U.S. policy too; one of the long-standing themes across party lines has been U.S. support for the brave individuals who are working within China to try to improve their country's rights environment.

During Clinton's visit, prominent government critics were put under house arrest, threatened, or subjected to increased surveillance. Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen movement, has been under house arrest since December 2008 for helping draft "Charter 08," a statement calling for greater rights protections. Liu has been welcomed at the U.S. Embassy in the past. One can only imagine how Liu and China's other courageous human rights defenders felt when hearing that the United States now considers them an impediment to progress on other issues.

Even more dangerous, Clinton's statements undermine the Obama administration's credibility on human rights the world over. Does the secretary now plan to tell the Burmese military junta, or the Taliban, that it will "agree to disagree" on rights while they work through other issues? Any government with the slightest political sophistication will now see an opportunity to renegotiate standards on human rights and how the United States approaches them. By publicly backing off with China, rather than making human rights a keystone of policy, the secretary has lowered the bar not just for China's leaders but for would-be rights abusers everywhere.

Clinton has already responded to some of the human rights community's criticisms, insisting that she will raise rights issues but wants to protect the opportunity to make progress on trade, security, and environmental concerns. But the core problem with Clinton's approach still hasn't been addressed: The secretary now risks wasting the chance to promote both goals simultaneously. Improvement on economic, military, and political concerns requires that the Chinese government stop censoring the domestic press, emancipate the legal system from the deeply vested interests of the Chinese Communist Party and its cadres, and protect rather than persecute whistle-blowers. Therefore, Clinton's best chance of ensuring the success of long-term U.S. interests is to place human rights at the core of the bilateral relationship, not relegate it to the periphery.

It's too soon to tell what lies behind the Obama administration's apparent decision to downgrade the importance of human rights. But not all is lost for Liu Xiaobo and the many others like him around the world. Clinton could still recommit the United States to regularly and publicly raising rights issues with the Chinese government. Speaking through a medium such as Voice of America or Radio Free Asia, Clinton could affirm her commitment so that people in China can hear her. She can appoint an ambassador who will press rights with his or her Chinese counterparts. And on subsequent visits to China, Clinton and other cabinet members could emphasize the values of the Obama administration. We cannot afford to give the Chinese government an excuse to ignore rights reforms over the coming four years. To do so would be tantamount to giving Beijing a green light to carry on with its worst abusive practices.

Sophie Richardson is the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.