Jerome A. Cohen. The Hu-Obama Summit and "Human Rights." SCMP (South China Morning Post)

February 1, 2011

In early 2009, human rights organizations criticized America’s new Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for stating that the United States Government cannot allow disagreements over human rights to interfere with Sino-American cooperation in economic, climate and security crises. These critics also noted that, at the United Nations and in bilateral contacts with China, Obama Administration officials were emphasizing those crises but not China’s violations of its international human rights obligations.

One leading organization, Human Rights Watch, tried to convince Secretary Clinton that progress on those crises must be seen as inseparable from progress in freedoms of expression and protections against arbitrary punishment for the Chinese people. Otherwise, the U.S. would continue to succumb to China’s diplomatic strategy of “segregating human rights issues into a dead-end ‘dialogue of the deaf'”.

The just-concluded U.S.-China summit demonstrated how much more skillful the Obama Administration has become in pacifying human rights critics without allowing their cause to interfere with Sino-American cooperation in other important matters. Carefully orchestrated pre-summit activities featured an impressive speech by Secretary Clinton that emphasized human rights and even mentioned the Chinese government’s outrageous mistreatment of several of China’s best-known activists. To show his own sincerity, the president met with some American-based human rights advocates.

All the summit activities — the White House dinners, the  parties’ Joint Statement, President Obama’s public remarks, the joint press conference, President Hu’s visit to the Congress and his appearances before business leaders and opinion-makers — offered opportunities to reflect  American concern for human rights as well as other problems.

Yet was anything substantial accomplished for human rights? We know that, in other respects, the summit was successful for both Beijing and Washington. It restored a positive tone to Sino-American relations after a year of worrisome tensions, announced many useful agreements, pledged each side to work harder to resolve various crises and burnished the standing of each president at home and abroad. But, as the press conference’s first questioner asked President Obama, can we have any confidence that, as a result of this visit, China’s practice of “using censorship and force to repress its people” will change?

The Joint Statement, like that issued during Obama’s 2009 China visit, calls for another round of the “on again, off again”  U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue and also for renewal of the Legal Experts Dialogue. This time, however, a specific time frame is provided. The former is to take place before the next Strategic and Economic Dialogue, scheduled for May, and the latter is to occur even earlier.

The problem, of course, is whether either of these official human rights meetings will prove worthwhile. Although bilateral dialogues such as these enable Western democratic governments to give their constituents the impression that they are pressing China on rights, by and large the dialogues have not proved significant. They are too occasional, brief and formal to permit more than stilted discussion, and few who take part have detailed knowledge of Chinese realities. Moreover, ranking Communist Party and police officials who control China’s legal system and preside over day to day repression do not participate.

Such official dialogues, like the summits that announce them, come and go, but the Chinese people’s freedoms of speech, association, assembly and religion continue to be ruthlessly suppressed, and lawless beatings, arbitrary detentions, unlawful searches, obscene tortures, coerced confessions and unfair trials prevail nationwide, despite the persistent efforts of China’s many able law reformers.

If renewal of the official dialogues promises little, the rhetoric accompanying their announcement promises less. The vague abstractions of the Joint Statement pledged both sides to promote and protect human rights in accordance with “international instruments”. Yet, although it has committed itself to twenty-five human rights treaties, China emphasized that “there should be no interference in any country’s internal affairs”, and the two sides acknowledged “significant differences on these issues”.The Chinese side apparently failed to see the irony in its agreement that “each country and its people have the right to choose their own path” when it is the Chinese government’s refusal to permit its people to choose their own path that is at the heart of the human rights dispute.

At the press conference and other appearances, President Hu proved to be a master of evasion and ambiguity in resisting efforts to get him to clarify human rights matters. He caused momentary excitement by his press conference statement that “a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights.” Veteran observers recognized that this was nothing new in China’s position and that in any event he was probably referring only to economic, social and cultural rights rather than political and civil rights. Chinese censors, however, took no chances that their people might misunderstand and blacked out this sentence from most transmissions. Since Hu’s next sentence — uttered with a straight face —  promised to “continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country”, it is clear that his words have to be parsed with caution.

Whatever human rights concessions President Obama may have extracted during the summit’s confidential sessions, his public remarks offered rights advocates and the huge number of Chinese rights victims little comfort. After noting that the situation had evolved favorably in the past thirty years, he expressed confidence “that thirty years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change.” Until then, he said, the U.S. will continue to make “frank and candid assessment” of China’s human rights. But, echoing Secretary Clinton’s controversial 2009 remarks, he quickly pointed out, “that doesn’t prevent us from cooperating in these other critical areas”.

In rejecting China’s “cultural” excuse that its history, authoritarian traditions and national conditions somehow justify human rights abuses, Obama might have cited the contrary example of Taiwan. It shares China’s political-legal culture, yet has moved vigorously in recent decades to implement universal rights despite its exclusion from world diplomacy. He also should have called publicly for release of his fellow Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and other imprisoned activists, since private pleas no longer sway Beijing. He should have, in addition, promoted establishment of permanent official joint working committees and more “track two”, unofficial dialogues to supplement the ineffectual official dialogues and facilitate serious rights discussions and proposals. Above all, he should have openly acknowledged America’s inconsistent and selective assertion of human rights concerns in its international relations and its own human rights failings. Otherwise, as cynics in and out of China claim, “human rights” is destined to remain merely a political exercise in which Washington thrusts and Beijing parries.

This article appeared in edited form in the South China Morning Post on February 1, 2011,  under the title, “Political Sport.”  The article was published in Chinese in the Chinese Times on February 10, 2011.  (繁体中文

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at NYU School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. See