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Obama winds up China visit with appeal on human rights

4 min

US President Barack Obama wound up his visit to China with a call for greater respect for human rights, although the reporting of his comments in China itself was muted.


AFP - Human rights advocates are voicing relief after US President Barack Obama publicly raised the issue with China but conceded that Beijing's rising clout made it tougher to have an impact.

Obama, who was closing his maiden visit to China on Wednesday, told a joint press appearance with President Hu Jintao that the United States believed in fundamental rights for all people, including ethnic and religious minorities.

In a forum with young people in Shanghai, Obama pointed to his own country's struggles to improve human rights, citing his election as the first African American president.

Human rights groups had awaited his remarks nervously as some Obama aides were uneasy about public comments. The advisers feared setting back cooperation with the Asian power, the largest holder of the soaring US debt.

"President Obama said some of the right things, but we should not expect China's leaders to listen, because they continue to view the advance of human rights as a threat to their leadership," said Leonard Leo, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a non-partisan advisory board.

T. Kumar, the director for international advocacy at Amnesty International USA, said he was "pleased that he publicly raised human rights concerns both in Shanghai and Beijing."

"We are confident that his private meetings with President Hu will produce some results," Kumar said.

But he voiced concern that Hu and Obama did not take questions from journalists. And few Chinese saw Obama's Shanghai appearance, which was not broadcast nationally.

China also did not free any dissidents, a common goodwill gesture on previous visits by US leaders.

"It is of course difficult to be as robust in one's criticism if the one you're criticizing is lending you billions and billions of dollars," said William F. Schulz, a former executive director of Amnesty International USA and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think-tank.

But Schulz said he was willing to give Obama time to see if his overall foreign policy approach -- of a humbler United States speaking to friend and foe alike -- would bear fruit in improving human rights.

"Public criticism is certainly appropriate in some contexts but it needs to be said and done strategically," Schulz said.

"A constant barrage of criticism, absent other forms of enticement, generally is ultimately self-defeating," he said.

Under former president Bill Clinton, the United States delinked China's human rights record from trading privileges, ending annual debates in Congress that threw a spotlight on Beijing's rights record.

"We should have no illusion -- Obama's access to the Chinese people was less than (presidents George W.) Bush and Clinton when they went there," Winston Lord, a longtime US policymaker on China, told PBS public television.

China's rights record "is going backwards and in some areas it's worse than when I was ambassador 20 years ago," he said.

Obama came under fire at home last month for declining to see the Dalai Lama, marking the first time in 18 years that Tibet's exiled spiritual leader has visited Washington without seeing the president. The White House said Obama would see him after returning from China.

The International Campaign for Tibet rejoiced that Obama publicly voiced support for dialogue with the Dalai Lama, despite Beijing's intense appeals -- which even drew parallels to the US Civil War -- to sideline the Nobel Peace laureate.

The Chinese "neglected to take into account that Tibet was long ago institutionalized as a principled US foreign policy interest," said Mary Beth Markey, the group's vice president for international advocacy.

An exiled leader of China's Uighur minority, while wishing Obama had addressed their plight directly, voiced appreciation for his remarks on minorities.

"This gives hope to millions of Uighurs who live under the shadow of China's state brutality since the July 5 unrest," said Alim Seytoff, vice president of the Uighur American Association.

The July violence involved fighting between Uighurs and China's Han majority that left 197 people dead and more than 1,600 injured. China executed nine people over the unrest days before Obama's visit.

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