On the Record

Human Rights in U.S.-China Relations

Kenneth G. Lieberthal

Melissa Block, host: When President Obama meets with China’s president, Hu Jintao, tomorrow, many are wondering how or even whether the topic of human rights will be broached. It’s especially sensitive now since imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. China responded by calling Liu a criminal, cracking down on activists and human rights lawyers, and has even pressured Western governments not to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo next month.

For his part, President Obama has called for Liu’s release, praising him as a courageous supporter of human rights and democracy. Well, for some insight into how President Obama might bring up Liu’s imprisonment and other human rights issues, we turn to Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution. He was senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. Welcome to the program.

Kenneth Lieberthal: Well, thank you.

Block: And how do you sort this out? With so many other pressing issues to work out with China – currency, trade, the trade deficit – how and when would President Obama raise human rights? How do you do that?

Lieberthal: Well, you’re right. It’s a crowded agenda, so this is not going to dominate the agenda. President Obama makes it a point at every such meeting to raise the human rights issue. So I think President Hu will be expecting him to raise it and quite confident it will come up. Privately we can be very candid with the Chinese on these things. And I assume he’ll make clear both his concerns about recent human rights trends in China and also express his opinion – put it this way, I would do this if I were he, and he may do it – to express his opinion that it really puts China in a very bad place to continue to detain a man for peaceful protests who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. That this is something that the Chinese side, for its own sake, may want to try to resolve sooner rather than later by finding a way to release Liu Xiaobo.

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