Can President Obama Pull a Cairo-Speech Moment in China?

President Barack Obama’s maiden trip to China will be his first face-to-face opportunity to shape U.S.-China relations – the bilateral relationship he has labeled “as important as any in the world.” It would be easy to sidestep discussion of the United States’ more controversial political differences with China and confine the dialogue to polite issues of strategic and economic concern. But taking such an approach would underutilize Obama’s superlative skills as a communicator, bridge-builder, and moral beacon. New currents within Chinese society provide an opening for Obama to press Beijing on harder questions. The president’s challenge this week will be to walk a fine line between respect for China and pulling all his punches, careful to recognize China’s recent achievements while reflecting candidly on American ideals.

In a departure from his White House predecessors, this president has already signaled a more respectful U.S. posture toward China. Since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have felt compelled to point fingers and lecture the Chinese government on human rights (Bill Clinton’s “butchers of Beijing” 1992 campaign jab springs to mind). This tendency, an often shrill manifestation of very legitimate concerns, has been perceived in China as the arrogant hectoring of a superpower that sees itself as morally superior.

Such condescension has fueled the growth of a hypernationalistic segment of China’s younger generation, the so-called “angry youth,” and caused broad swaths of the Chinese public to think that the United States has a conspiracy to “keep China down.” It is therefore productive that Obama has changed the relationship’s tone, and even erstwhile China critics, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have somewhat adjusted their tone in the new era.

This shift in U.S. approach is partly the result of Obama’s “unclenched fist” worldview, but it is also a prudent reaction to China’s increasing geopolitical importance.

Now the imperative for the United States is to avoid swinging too far in the opposite direction – that is, seeming too deferential to China on hot-button political issues. Such a sudden change of heart would appear baldly opportunistic to the Chinese. There is already a nascent perception in Beijing that the United States is only interested in the country’s continued financial support and expanding consumer market. A failure to represent American ideals honestly and engage the Chinese on areas of disagreement would risk cementing this impression.

To a certain extent, the Obama administration is already on the record in support of such an approach. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently introduced the catchphrase “strategic reassurance,” a new policy framework meant to supplant the Bush-era call for China to become a “responsible stakeholder.” According to Steinberg, strategic reassurance requires that both sides “find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military, or economic.”

Concrete steps have already been taken to address military and economic mistrust, but the political dimension of “strategic reassurance” remains largely undefined. In part, this haziness is a reflection of how discombobulated the world’s leading liberal democracy feels vis-à-vis the increasingly powerful but still authoritarian China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies expected successive waves of democratization to extend democratic capitalism to the farthest reaches of the globe. Instead, China’s model of state capitalism appears to have weathered a series of financial storms better than democratic capitalism, and the United States now struggles with the question of how to engage this hybrid authoritarian-capitalist state in the post-Cold War world.

The good news is that Chinese society is gradually becoming more pluralistic, and its leadership more open-minded, on the once-intractable issues of democracy, human rights, and even religious freedom. The country’s top two leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have voiced strong support for the incremental implementation of democratic reforms, conceiving of democracy in roughly the same way that the West does. “When we talk about democracy,” Wen explained to a Brookings Institution delegation to Beijing in 2006, “we usually refer to the three most important components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances.” The influential Chinese intellectual Yu Keping caused a stir in late 2006 when he published an essay, “Democracy Is a Good Thing,” in which he boldly posited the universal value of democracy and argued that the concept is not the proprietary possession of any particular country or region of the world.

And there are other encouraging signs of progress. Although tight media controls remain in place, the proliferation of Chinese news outlets and the advent of the Internet have vastly expanded Chinese citizens’ access to information. There are now more than 2,000 newspapers, 9,000 magazines, and 350 TV stations in the country, a far cry from the handful that existed in the late-1970s. A rapidly expanding middle class is beginning to play a more active role in public affairs, and a burgeoning lawyerly profession is pushing for greater rule of law and stronger legal protection of individual rights.

The existence of these new currents in Chinese society provide an opening for Obama to engage Beijing on political issues in a way that can be at once consistent with American values and respectful of China’s enduring cultural identity and ongoing efforts at reform. Instead of allowing “democracy” to be the elephant in the room, he should take a page from his speech at Cairo University this summer and broach the subject with respect for China’s recent achievements, a dose of humility concerning the democratic project generally, and a sophisticated and sympathetic understanding of China’s turbulent 20th-century political history. He can insist that different cultures often share the same values.

None of these hopeful indicators, however, should be allowed to obscure the Chinese state’s most glaring violations of human rights and religious freedom. Last year’s Tibetan uprising and this year’s turmoil in Xinjiang should not go unmentioned during Obama’s visit, and he may wish to impart to the Chinese the key lessons of America’s civil rights movement. He may also wish to applaud the Chinese government’s hesitant steps toward increasing government transparency and fairness in the criminal justice system, while cautioning that attempting to control the flow of information in the Internet age is no longer viable, and is almost certainly counterproductive.

Most centrally, Obama should make a point of stressing, perhaps at a public forum or with an audience composed of China’s youth, that democracy is not a U.S. export, that it is actually the common property of humankind, and that its implementation will vary significantly across countries. In so doing, he will help undermine the widespread belief in China that the United States aims to contain its rise. Sincerity is a truer expression of respect than hollow obeisance.

Obama’s trip will have been a success if, looking back in 10 years, the political leadership in Beijing and Washington consider 2009 to be the year they began to have candid discussions on every issue – the hallmark of a mature relationship. Let us hope that the White House can muster the requisite political fortitude and diplomatic foresight to make this the case.