In an interview with Diane Rehm, Kenneth Lieberthal discusses the Obama administration’s recent public criticism of China’s human rights record in the context of its recent, wide-ranging, and unusually severe crack down on dissent.
Diane Rehm: Turning to you, Ken Lieberthal, why do you think the U.S. is publicly voicing these concerns [over China’s human rights practices] now? And what’s your reaction?
Kenneth Lieberthal: Well, I think, first of all, the administration has very consistently, privately voiced these concerns to the Chinese. So I actually don’t think there has been a change in the substance of U.S. criticism of China on human rights issues. But the Obama administration, when it came in to office, felt that we really had not made much progress when we’d gone public with these accusations against China. It changes the issue in Chinese minds from one where you may actually be trying to accomplish something to simply trying to humiliate China’s leaders. And even Chinese intellectuals know very well what their own human rights problems are. So there is a little bit of a kind of a perception of being gratuitous when we go public with this.
Lieberthal: So I think the reason they’ve decided to go public is really two-fold. One is that the Chinese have — as the other two guests made very clear — the Chinese have initiated a very wide ranging and unusually severe crackdown. That’s gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. and elsewhere. And it should. But, I think, in that context, the administration has felt increasing pressure to demonstrate to the American public that it is very concerned about these issues. It has expressed those concerns consistently to the Chinese leadership. But for very understandable reasons, they want to be seeing an America standing up for American values, and so they’re doing so.
I don’t believe the hesitation on [Australia joining the joint maritime exercises] is primarily at this point driven by concerns about provoking China. [Modi’s] government, if anything, domestically has been criticized for taking too many provocative steps towards China.