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What’s Next on China

Published in: The Huffington Post

Davos - So what's next? After finally deciding to give human rights concerns pride of place in January's US-China summit, how should the Obama administration translate its rhetoric into policy?

Since Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned writer and critic of the Chinese government, won the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2010, the Obama administration seems to have found its human rights voice. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued strong statements in support of Liu and freedom of expression, and the secretary reiterated that support and articulated a long list of other human rights concerns in her address last month on US-China policy. In the run-up to the summit, President Obama sought the views of China experts who are critical of the Chinese government, and took the highly unusual step of raising human rights concerns in his welcoming remarks to President Hu Jintao. And, to my surprise, I found myself a guest at the White House state dinner, seated with Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhang Yesui-a man who had previously resisted meeting me.

These are all welcome steps. But to be meaningful over the coming months and years, they have to be sustained-and intensified.

First, the administration should recognize that change in China won't be a function of persuading only government officials to think and act differently; it will also require standing with independent citizens who seek change. That means the administration should keep talking to people inside and outside the Chinese government, including those who have been vilified or imprisoned by that government. President Obama and administration officials should engage in live online discussions with Chinese citizens, and continue to visibly welcome those with a diversity of views about the Chinese government to brief senior US officials. Obama and Clinton should offer to do interviews via the US-based media outlets with Chinese-language services, and arrange for their remarks to be translated and circulated inside China; doing so challenges the Chinese government's attempts to prevent its citizens from knowing what the US says about human rights. Most important, the US should increase its support-rhetorically, diplomatically, and financially-to human rights defenders of all stripes in and from China.

Second, January's China summit was a good example of emphasizing human rights on an occasion the Chinese leadership cares enormously about. President Hu wanted the US tour to enhance his prestige, and he now understands that he cannot receive such benefits without grappling with human rights, despite the Chinese government's efforts to wipe those aspects of the summit out of the domestic press. Such high-profile public treatment of the issue is far more effective than all of the quiet backroom dialogues on human rights that China prefers. Whether or not such designated dialogues occur, the US government should continue insisting that the public discussion of human rights is now a standard part of any high-level interaction with the Chinese government, especially when strategic and economic issues are on the agenda.

Third, US officials have to stay on message about human rights, and keep that message in the public domain. Having now publicly defended China's most well-known political prisoner, having rattled off a list of state-sponsored human rights abuses ranging from enforced disappearances to restrictions on religious freedom, and having spoken of the universality of human rights, American officials should not revert to quiet diplomacy, to preemptively "agree to disagree," or to try to soften criticism with reference to "different traditions." President Obama's odd lapse into this kind of rhetoric at the joint White House press conference raises concerns that the tougher language of recent weeks may be fleeting or not entirely integrated into US policy; doing so again will allow the Chinese government to choose the formulations it prefers, and to compromise any of the summit's gains.

We all know that ultimately change will come from inside China. Ambassador Zhang made that clear to me at the state dinner when he insisted that Liu Xiaobo's peaceful words constitute a threat to China's very existence. What he meant, of course, is that Liu's ideas about democracy are a threat to autocratic rule. For that reason, the Chinese leadership has shown itself determined to silence such voices. The administration did a good job during the summit of aligning itself with human rights defenders in China like Liu, Gao Zhisheng, and Chen Guangcheng, and with the universality of human rights standards. Now it must follow through.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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