Human Rights Likely To Figure In U.S.-China Meeting

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When President Obama meets with China's President Hu Jintao at the G-20 summit on Thursday, Obama is likely to mention human rights, and perhaps even bring up the case of imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month. For some insight into how President Obama might broach the topic, NPR's Melissa Block talks with Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, and former senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton.


When President Obama meets with China's president, Hu Jintao, tomorrow, many are wondering how or even whether the topic of human rights will be broached. It's especially sensitive now since imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. China responded by calling Liu a criminal, cracking down on activists and human rights lawyers, and has even pressured Western governments not to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo next month.

For his part, President Obama has called for Liu's release, praising him as a courageous supporter of human rights and democracy. Well, for some insight into how President Obama might bring up Liu's imprisonment and other human rights issues, we turn to Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution. He was senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Welcome to the program.

Mr. KENNETH LIEBERTHAL (Brookings Institution): Well, thank you.

BLOCK: And how do you sort this out? With so many other pressing issues to work out with China - currency, trade, the trade deficit - how and when would President Obama raise human rights? How do you do that?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: Well, you're right. It's a crowded agenda, so this is not going to dominate the agenda. President Obama makes it a point at every such meeting to raise the human rights issue. So I think President Hu will be expecting him to raise it and quite confident it will come up. Privately we can be very candid with the Chinese on these things. And I assume he'll make clear both his concerns about recent human rights trends in China and also express his opinion - put it this way, I would do this if I were he, and he may do it - to express his opinion that it really puts China in a very bad place to continue to detain a man for peaceful protests who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. That this is something that the Chinese side, for its own sake, may want to try to resolve sooner rather than later by finding a way to release Liu Xiaobo.

BLOCK: What would you say to human rights lawyers or activists who say that these issues, human rights issues, get short shrift at meetings like this between President Obama and President Hu?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I would say two things. One is the human rights lawyers and activists should keep doing what they're doing and push it as hard as they can. Secondly, though, if you take one issue and put it at the very center of our meetings between these two leaders, you're going to end up both doing worse on that issue and doing worse on a lot of other issues of great consequence.

I think that you get the Chinese to move somewhat in our direction by building up a sense of mutual trust and by highlighting that this is a very neuralgic issue on the U.S. side at a popular level and at an elite level. And therefore, their moving on it will move forward goals that all of us share.

Another way to go about it, and I have seen this happen, is to say to the Chinese, on this or that well-known case, that frankly, we can't move forward on X or Y other issue until they do something on this case. The politics of it are just too tough for us. It isn't that they agree with us, it isn't that they share our values on this issue, it's just - they want to get something else done and we're trading for it. You can't do that often, but occasionally there's the opportunity to do that and that opportunity has been used at times in the past.

BLOCK: How do you read the rhetoric coming from China surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony coming up next month in Oslo? They're warning Western governments to stay away or bear the consequences. Those words from the vice foreign minister.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: Frankly, I'm disappointed, but not at all surprised. The Chinese are being obnoxious in asking European countries and now Japan and others not to send representatives to this ceremony when they normally would do so. I think in the process they're simply calling attention to the fact that Liu Xiaobo remains in incarceration in China. But that is just the way they are.

If it touches on domestic affairs and they regard it as either increasing instability in China or humiliating the Chinese government, they react vociferously and the rest of us just sit back and wonder why they do so much damage to themselves internationally when these things occur.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure, good to talk to you.

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