President Obama's China trip may have proved to be a mere lesson in rhetoric.
Upon arrival, he was right to state openly that freedom of expression and freedom of worship are "universal rights." But that was not enough.
Today in China, the underground church is suffering major persecution. Thousands of pastors are on Beijing's "wanted list" for opposing government policies on abortion and birth control. Hundreds of laity and clergy are under arrest and undergoing "re-education" in labor camps, and hundreds more are beaten and tortured daily, and their properties destroyed or confiscated for adhering to their religion.
Obama, with all his good intentions of promoting democracy, steered clear of such controversial topics, and tactfully evaded talk of the recent unrest in the province of Xinjiang, as well.
The China that Obama visited is quite different from the underdeveloped China that President Nixon encountered in 1972 or the China that greeted Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush on their visits.
And even decades ago, American presidents failed to press the human rights case.
In 1979, President Carter bestowed on China most favored nation status, which brought prestige as well as trading advantages, like lower tariffs, to Beijing. Then in June 1989, just as President George H. W. Bush was set to inform Congress of his decision to renew China's designation, the country's famous pro-democracy uprising and the ensuing Tiananmen Square massacre occurred. Chinese security forces reportedly killed as many as perhaps 4,000 civilians, several of them run over by tanks. But Washington renewed China's most favored nation classification anyway. In 1997, Clinton sought to delink this from human rights, and by 2000 China's status was made permanent.
China now has the advantage. She is the largest lender to the United States and the largest holder of U.S. Treasuries.
What's more, China is coming out of the world recession faster than any other nation. She is about to surpass Japan as the world's second-largest economy (next to the United States) and, by some estimates, she will surpass ours in a matter of decades.
Obama therefore was careful in his words. If the United States should offend China with too much talk of human rights, China could make us pay.
And yet, our commitment to human rights should not be subservient to economics.
When the Chinese Communist Party finally falls, as it will one day, the people of China will remember who stood up for them.
Winifred C. Chin is a research affiliate at the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute at New York University.
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