Obama's China Breakthrough: Why He Finally Got Tough on Human Rights

On the eve of a dialogue on human rights with Beijing, the president has finally begun talking tough about China's crackdowns. It's a sign he realizes his toothless policy of the last two years has failed, says Joshua Kurlantzick.

As the U.S. and China prepare to meet on Wednesday and Thursday for their annual Dialogue on Human Rights, Beijing and Washington have begun sniping at each other mercilessly. Beijing has blasted America's wars in Afghanistan and other countries as human-rights abuses and warned the White House not to "position itself as a preacher of human rights." The Obama administration, meanwhile, has emphasized the growing crackdown on rights activists across the People's Republic, publicly chastising Beijing even before the dialogue begins.

Far from being a cause for concern, the sniping is a positive sign that the Obama administration has learned that its toothless approach to China over the past two years has failed. Its also an indication that the president has come to understand something that previous administrations knew very well—namely, that Washington can criticize the pragmatic Beijing regime on human rights while continuing to work with it on other important global issues.

Upon coming into office, the Obama administration launched what it called a policy of "strategic reassurance" with China. The hope was that if America assured China that the U.S. wouldn't impede its global rise, Beijing would reciprocate by agreeing to work with the international community on the most important global issues. Accordingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bluntly declared that human rights would not be a high priority in America's relationship with China, and Obama himself, during a visit to China in the fall of 2009, held only a staged "press conference" with Chinese leader Hu Jintao at which journalists were barred from asking any questions. (By contrast, when Bill Clinton visited China, he held an open, freewheeling press conference with then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin at which the U.S. president publicly criticized China's abuses.) Perhaps most galling, when the Dalai Lama visited the U.S. in October 2009, the White House, bowing to pressure from Beijing, refused to grant the Tibetan leader a meeting with the president. (This marked the first time in two decades that the American president failed to see the Dalai Lama on a visit to Washington; the two finally met in February 2010.)

The damage has been done. Beijing has learned that if it tries to bully the U.S., Washington is likely to give in.

But strategic reassurance hasn't work out as planned. Backing off on human rights has only emboldened China. Chinese officials have privately lobbied their American counterparts not to criticize Beijing on abuses toward Tibetans and Uighurs, a Turkic-Muslim minority living primarily in western China. Beijing has likewise ignored American requests to intervene more decisively on the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and act in ways that seems calculated to provoke war with its southern neighbor. Neither has China suddenly allied itself with the U.S. on climate change; at the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, Beijing held a secret, back-room meeting with other developing nations that ultimately helped scuttle any compromise.

Worst of all, China has stepped up its attacks on human-rights defenders. Over the past five months, Beijing has grown increasingly wary of dissent, as unrest has swept through the Arab world and other closed societies. In fact, most longtime China observers say this is the most sustained climate of repression since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. After an online call, in late winter, for a "jasmine revolution" in China, Chinese security forces rounded up some of the most prominent human-rights advocates in Beijing and beat and arrested foreign journalists working in the capital. The Chinese government has also unleashed a brutal crackdown on Tibetan activists, even arresting Ai Weiwei, the country's best-known modern artist, on questionable charges of "economic crimes."

To its credit, the Obama administration now seems, at long last, to have recognized its errors and shifted course, realizing that the U.S. can criticize Chinese abuses while still working with Beijing on regional security, trade, and other challenges. Besides noting China's abuses before this week's dialogue, President Obama used a meeting with President Hu in January to publicly call on Beijing to improve its rights record: "History shows that societies are more harmonious… and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld."

Still, the damage has been done. Beijing has learned that if it tries to bully the U.S., Washington is likely to give in. Getting the Chinese government to unlearn that lesson won't be easy. It will take the kind of consistent toughness that the Obama administration has so far failed to demonstrate. But if the change proves lasting, it will likely benefit the United States no less than the dissidents currently languishing in Chinese prisons.

Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.