In one of the odder moments of his trip to Asia this week, President Barack Obama sat next to Chinese President Hu Jintao at a lavish state dinner in Beijing while 60 young dancers performed by swaying in unison to the 1980s Dionne Warwick hit That's What Friends Are For.
If Obama went to Asia to be friendly, he didn't disappoint. After breaking protocol with an awkward bow to the emperor of Japan, the president yielded in China: Obama steered clear of any public remarks aimed at rebuking Chinese officials for their terrible human rights record. Administration officials reportedly said the president spoke with President Hu in private about conditions for dissidents, but Obama didn't meet publicly with any group facing government repression, including Christians or independent journalists.
Obama and Hu did discuss pressing issues such as trade, energy, and North Korea, but agreed to few concrete actions. White House senior adviser David Axelrod rebuffed claims that the president was too soft in China, saying Obama was laying the foundation for future diplomacy: "This is not an immediate gratification business."
But Adam Segal, a senior fellow on China at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Politico that the president's low-key approach risked the appearance of weakness at an important moment, a criticism Obama has faced on other international fronts, including relations with Iran. "[U.S. officials] don't want this narrative that the U.S. is a declining power and China is a rising power," said Segal. "The sense of the trip was: 'We're not here to get in their face about these things.'"
Chinese activists in the United States had urged Obama to press Hu on known human rights abuses, with two advocacy groups providing searing congressional testimony last week of forced abortions and infanticide in China, a practice they say continues. (See "Journey in hell," Nov. 16, 2009.) Chinese human rights attorney Jiang Tianyong spent four weeks in the United States, talking about unjust treatment of human rights lawyers in China, and urging Obama to address the issue during his visit.
On Thursday morning as Tianyong was preparing to take his 7-year-old daughter to school in Beijing, Chinese authorities arrested him and struck his wife in front of their daughter, according to Texas-based ChinaAid. Officials at the Christian human rights organization said police detained Tianyong for 13 hours before releasing him. The group said U.S. Embassy officials told them they registered a complaint with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday, the same day Obama was expected to return home.