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On Tiptoe

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During his first visit to China, Barack Obama reportedly addressed a range of contentious issues with his hosts, in private: Iran, North Korea, climate change, the yuan and its impact on the global financial crisis. But, whether in public or in private, the US president tiptoed very lightly when talking about China’s human rights record. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai with young Chinese, Obama deflected the chance to criticise Beijing’s censorship of the internet, for example, talking only about universal rights in the vaguest terms. At a scripted ‘press conference’ – neither he nor the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, actually took any questions – Obama walked the same line, telling Hu that the US is committed to universal rights, but refusing to mention any of China’s specific failings.

This is part of a new US strategy towards repressive regimes. The Obama administration hopes that showing it’s willing to talk may possibly produce some real change, and will certainly demonstrate a clear break from the Bush administration, which divided the world into enemies and friends and simply refused to talk to its enemies. ‘There’s nothing wrong with talking – talking to anyone,’ one State Department official told me.

But if the Bush administration went too far in one direction, Obama risks going too far the other way. The Bush and Clinton administrations showed that China responds to a harder line. Both presidents were able to use the bully pulpit to highlight rights abuses in China, and it had an effect: according to Human Rights Watch, there has been a significant decline in human rights in China during Obama’s presidency, with crackdowns on human-rights lawyers and other activists. Even now, with Beijing possessing more leverage than in the past because of its massive holdings of American debt, China is far from the omnipotent global colossus it’s sometimes portrayed as in the media (its GDP per capita is about the same as Angola’s). Obama needs to realise that it’s possible to be both critical and co-operative at the same time.

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