US human rights groups were furious that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to be letting China off the hook on her current visit to Beijing.
Just before arriving in the Chinese capital, Clinton told reporters that while she would press concerns over human rights: “Those issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”
Her remarks have been widely interpreted in the US as a signal that she is prepared to put human rights on the back burner.
A spokesman for Amnesty International USA said he was “shocked and extremely disappointed” by Clinton’s remarks.
“The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues,” the spokesman said. “But by commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future US initiatives to protect those rights in China.”
Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet, said: “The US government cannot afford to let Beijing set the agenda. Leaders really need to step up and pressure China. It’s often easy to wonder whether pressure makes a difference. It may not make a difference in one day or one month, but it would be visible after some years.”
Sophie Richardson, a director of Human Rights Watch, said: “Secretary Clinton’s remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government — segregating human rights into a dead-end dialogue of the deaf. A new approach is needed, one in which the US engages China on the critical importance of human rights to a wide range of mutual security interests.”
“A successful strategy for the US doesn’t entail agreeing to disagree, but rather convincing China it is in its own interest to protect dissent, peaceful protests and the creation of a truly independent legal system,” Richardson said. “Most importantly, ordinary people, workers, intellectuals and even government and party representatives in China will also appreciate hearing the United States raise human rights issues in ways that echo their own day-to-day concerns about rule of law and government accountability.”
Because Clinton openly criticized China’s human rights record in a 1995 speech in Beijing, there had been high hopes that she would give priority to the issue again.
But leaving Seoul on Friday for her final stop in Beijing on a week-long tour of Asia, Clinton said she would concentrate on the global economic crisis, climate change and security challenges, such as the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that questions of Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, the whole range of challenges that we often engage in with the Chinese are not part of the agenda. But we pretty much know what they are going to say,” Clinton said.
Before leaving Washington, Clinton received a letter from seven US human rights groups urging her to make human rights “a prominent topic” in her public and private discussions with the Chinese leadership.
“Your visit will set the tone for the US-China relationship in the new Obama administration,” the letter said. “This will be the crucial moment to signal to the Chinese government that the quality of its relationship with the United States will depend in part on whether it lives by universally accepted human rights norms in its domestic and foreign policies.”