President Obama this week embarked on his first trip to China, but so far he has little to show for his visit. Wrapping up a three-day stay in the Asian powerhouse, the president secured impressive photo ops, spouted lofty rhetoric, and made vague statements about future plans. Yet he has done absolutely nothing to defend American interests or to stand up for the Chinese people who continue to suffer under communist tyranny.
For an unapologetically liberal leader, President Obama had surprisingly little to say to China on the contentious issue of human rights. While China has enthusiastically embraced capitalism, it has ignored the Western world’s demands that it improve the treatment of its own people.
The facts are bleak. An estimated half-million Chinese are currently being held without trial or legal recourse; religious freedoms are suppressed; and the Chinese press is vigorously censored. The minority Tibetan and Uighar peoples are oppressed. Prisoners face torture and swift execution. While China may excel at wowing the world with dazzling events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it remains a deeply repressive country.
And yet, President Obama has tip-toed around these issues, doing his best to avoid antagonizing his hosts. He has not met with Chinese liberals, with spiritual and faith leaders, and certainly not with the Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has been a thorn in China’s side ever since China occupied Tibet, and yet has always been feted in the West as a champion of freedom and human rights. President Obama hasn’t exactly repudiated this position; he’s simply refused to meet with the Dalai Lama until after the summit, hoping to play both sides of the coin. Apparently, the president believes that it is possible for America to find a balanced position between the oppressor and the oppressed.
The president’s only “real” contact with average Chinese citizens occurred during a so-called town hall meeting with students in Shanghai. The meeting was actually a carefully managed media event, controlled by the Chinese. Obama played along and made a few bland remarks about the need to embrace openness and limit censorship, knowing that his words would reach few in China, and therefore not offend his hosts. The president’s statement on the value of open information and a free press were seen by almost no one — the Chinese did not widely broadcast the event. So much for freedom of the press.
It is unfortunate that President Obama has shown the same disinterest in the plight of Chinese dissidents that he did in the fates of Iranian reformers. For all his talk of optimism and hope, Obama clearly values building relationships with dictators more than supporting the people they oppress. This would be difficult to swallow even if it had conveyed any advantages, but ignoring the Iranian protesters has done nothing to improve relations between America and Iran, and will do no more to improve America’s standing with China.
It would be imprudent, of course, for Obama overtly to provoke China. China’s economic and military strength are growing rapidly, at a time when America’s economy and military are already stretched to the breaking point. America clearly wants to see China take a greater leadership role in the world, thus relieving some of the burdens America shoulders. In some small ways, China has cooperated, dispatching naval ships to assist in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, for example. On other issues, however, notably the Iranian nuclear program, China has shown no inclination to help America.
In his haste to welcome China onto the world stage, President Obama should take care not to slight the other Asian giant. India, almost as populous as China and a democracy, to boot, is like China a vibrant, growing power. India is actually more likely to be amenable to American interests in the region, particular in regards to combating militant Islam. The Indian government has responded negatively to President Obama’s invitation for China to increase its role in providing security in the region, a region that is far from America, but home to the Indians.
While the United States might not be able to tower above China as it could in the past, when the president of the United States speaks, the world listens. But the president’s strongest words were saved for lecturing China for its monetary policy, calling on Beijing to stop keeping the value of the Chinese dollar, the renminbi, artificially low. That would hurt Chinese imports to the benefit of America.
While most financial experts agree that the Chinese renminbi’s value is indeed too low relative to other major currencies, it must be remembered that it is China that has financed America’s deficit spending. President Obama has no business lecturing the Chinese on financial matters when his ambitious social engineering plans, especially his proposed healthcare reforms, will sink America even deeper into deficit, a deficit that Obama is counting on China to finance.
China’s rise has prompted many to suggest that America must learn to treat the Asian power as an equal. But President Obama has gone beyond such concessions. An equal partnership is one thing. But until Obama finds the backbone to publicly say what must be said about the injustice of China’s political system, he treats his own country as the junior partner.