WASHINGTON-In the courtship that is the Obama administration's "soft" diplomacy, few envoys air their grievances with their desired partners. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, though outspoken on China's human rights abuses in the past, made the subject a footnote in her public statements in China in February. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also avoided the issue on her May trip to China, discussing climate change instead.
On Monday President Obama, in his first remarks addressed to Chinese leaders, called on the government to respect freedom of speech and religion.
"That includes ethnic and religious minorities in China, as surely as it includes minorities within the United States," he said.
It's a first for the administration to comment on human rights alongside economic and security issues. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi promised Clinton that China would join in hosting dialogues on human rights, but the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commented that these "talk shops" have gone nowhere in the past, and that human rights priorities must be linked with other U.S. diplomatic goals.
"The United States should resist the temptation of pushing human rights discussions into a separate dialogue," said USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo in a statement.
But Obama didn't press the issue, offering the caveat that the United States would not impose on China: "Support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. Our nation is made up of immigrants from every part of the world. We have protected our unity and struggled to perfect our union by extending basic rights to all our people," he said. "Those rights include the freedom to speak your mind, to worship your God, and to choose your leaders. These are not things that we seek to impose-this is who we are."
China's President Hu Jintao responded to Obama's overall comments blandly in a message: "Our two countries should endeavor to expand common ground, reduce differences, enhance mutual trust and strengthen cooperation."
Violence between law enforcement and ethnic Uighurs in western China that left nearly 200 dead at the beginning of July showcased tensions among religious minorities in the country. By the government account, the Muslim Uighurs inflamed violence, while Uighur advocates say police instigated the trouble. Some human rights advocates condemned the government's crackdown in July and in years previous, in which many Uighurs have been unjustly imprisoned. The Chinese government has labeled Uighur dissidents as terrorists.
"We certainly appreciate [that] President Obama reminded the Chinese leaders of the importance of respecting and protecting individual rights in China," wrote Nury Turkel, a Uighur American attorney and former president of the Uyghur American Association (the group uses a different spelling of the ethnicity), in an email. "However, the U.S. government's silence on the recent unrest in the Uighur region has been extremely disappointing."
In his meeting with Chinese officials, Obama discussed the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons as well as climate change and trade. He delivered his remarks at Washington's International Trade Center, with numerous Chinese officials looking on as well as Clinton, the U.S Ambassador to China Jon Hunstman, and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner.