It probably won’t be all roses and chocolates tomorrow but there will definitely be some hand holding on Pennsylvania Avenue as U.S. President Barack Obama hosts Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in an official visit beginning Valentine’s Day. Also this February 14th, the bilateral EU-China summit will take place in Beijing as the Presidents of the European Council and European Commission hold high-level talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.
During an interview about her “Let’s Move!” campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama told Access Hollywood about Valentine’s Day plans with the President, saying that “He always has to plan Valentine’s; that’s his job. So I think there may be a date night…there’s something scheduled but it’s hard for him to pull off the big surprise when you’ve got a motorcade and police escorts.” Let’s see what the President has up his sleeve as he has one than one important job tomorrow.
During a briefing late Friday, U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called Mr. Xi’s visit “an opportunity to further get to know the likely future leader of China.” White House Senior Director for Asian Affairs Daniel Russel said the White House’s policy “involves engaging Chinese leadership in ways that increase the quality of our communication and elicit better cooperation.”
What exactly will that mean, particularly amidst a crackdown on dissidents throughout China and the growing violence in Tibet? Over the weekend, a teenage Tibetan Buddhist nun set herself on fire in the latest self-immolation against Chinese rule. The incident follows a series of shootings and protests in Tibetan-populated provinces in China since the January 23 incident in Draggo during which Chinese police open fire on Tibetan demonstrators.
In addition to his Valentine’s Day Oval Office meeting with President Obama, Mr. Xi will also meet with many other U.S. officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, a number of senior Cabinet members as well as visiting with members of Congress. The Bidens will spend their Valentine’s Day dinner hosting Mr. Xi and the Chinese delegation at their official residence, the Naval Observatory.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will travel to his native Iowa to accompany Mr. Xi along with U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke. Mr. Locke said on January 16th that China’s human rights situation is “in a down period and it’s getting worse.” Two days later, he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that “there’s been a greater intolerance of dissent and the human rights record of China has been going in the wrong direction.” Calling the situation in China “very, very delicate” he believes it would take something very significant and internal within China to cause any major upheaval. “I do believe that there is a power of the people, and there is a growing frustration among the people over the operations of government, corruption, lack of transparency, and issues that affect the Chinese people on a daily basis that they feel are being neglected,” said Locke.
Vice President Biden will travel to Los Angeles to meet Mr. Xi later in the week. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said that he thought one of the most powerful message associated with universal rights is the way in which the U.S. reflects them and that by Mr. Xi visiting other parts of the country in addition to Washington, he could witness these values firsthand in American communities. Yet subliminal hints like these will not be enough to quell the on-going violence in Tibet; the Obama Administration needs to address China’s deploorable record on human rights publicly, privately and with a level of specificity we have not yet seen.
When asked whether human rights would be emphasized as much as they would be with a visiting head of state, Senior Director for Asian Affairs Daniel Russel commented: “We don’t sacrifice the important issues for the sake of having a comfortable visit, nor do we shy away from candid private conversations with the Chinese on human rights.” He also noted that the increase of tensions in Tibet “is an area of grave concern” that the White House is tracking very closely, further noting that the U.S. has spoken out about it and encouraging Chinese officials and leaders to “exercise real restraint, and to safeguard the human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all of China’s citizens, including in Tibet. This is an important part of our agenda, and there’s no reason that the conversations with Vice President Xi would depart from our longstanding practices.” But will these concerns amount to a detailed conversation about and roadmap for human rights to which China will held accountable?
Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch wrote this piece outlining three concrete steps the U.S. can take to send a clear message to China that it needs to improve its rights record in order to prevent a decline in U.S.-China relations. Mr. Kine argues that the U.S. should use Mr. Xi’s visit to unambiguously state that a failure to reverse that trend constitutes a serious obstacle to better bilateral relations. He recommends that the U.S. officials:
- Highlight Individual Cases: President Obama and Vice President Biden could highlight individual cases that represent some of the most serious abuses taking place today. They could press Mr. Xi over his government’s torment of the blind, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng and reiterate their call to free the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. They could also communicate concerns for human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, whom the Chinese government forcibly disappeared in April 2010 as an apparent reprisal for his legal defense of marginalized groups, including democracy activists and members of religious minorities.
- Invite Critics To Participate: The U.S. can also underscore its concerns by inviting any Chinese government critics and former political prisoners who have sought refuge in the U.S. to participate in talks at the White House. Over the past year, the Chinese government has “disappeared” some of its most high-profile critics, apparently holding them in secret detention without any legal protection and judicial procedure -a serious crime under international law, including the renowned artist-activist Ai Weiwei. Inviting people who have endured abuses would be an important gesture of solidarity with independent Chinese voices and an unequivocal means of demonstrating to the Chinese government that its views are not the only ones that matter to the United States.
- Use Whole and Effective Engagement: The administration can signal to Mr. Xi diplomatic efforts designed to boost the effectiveness of bilateral engagement on human rights. Mr. Obama could inform Mr. Xi that each of the agencies participating in this year’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue will devote time to human rights issues. This “whole of government” approach on human rights in China will provide a host of key opportunities to raise the broad importance of better respect for the rule of law, the free flow of information and respect for peaceful criticism.
HRW recognizes that the U.S.-China relationship is vexed by any number of difficult issues ranging from currency and trade concerns to management of China’s unpredictable, nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea. But a “worsening” human rights environment is an ominous indicator of the retreat from the rule of law in China under its current senior leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and merits a strong response from the United States. By taking these steps, the U.S. will help ensure that Mr. Xi will return to China with a clear understanding that healthy bilateral relations are at risk as long as the Chinese government continues to abuse its citizens.
Many of these same bilateral relations will be discussed in Beijing also on Valentine’s Day, as European Union leaders will travel to Beijing for a high-level summit. The EU will be represented by Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. China will be represented by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Vice Premier Li Keqiang. Presidents Van Rompuy and Barroso will also have meetings with President Hu Jintao. The EU is China’s biggest trading partner.
Looking ahead to the talks tomorrow, President Van Rompuy said today that ”The EU and China, as two major economic partners, share a responsibility for addressing the challenges of our time. By working more closely together, the EU and China can make a difference and reap mutual benefits for our economies and address the needs of our peoples. I am looking forward to having in-depth discussion with Prime Minister Wen on our bilateral cooperation and on global and international issues on which we need to engage actively with each other.”
On February 2nd, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) sent a letter to all Foreign Affairs Ministers of the 27 EU Members States calling on them to support the adoption of an EU public statement about the human rights situation in Tibet and to raise public concerns expressed by several EU Member States during the EU-China talks Tuesday.
Vincent Metten, EU Policy Director at ICT said: “The wave of Tibetan self-immolations since March 2011, and the violent police response to peaceful protesters this year in Tibet must be urgently and publicly addressed at the upcoming EU-China Summit so that the weight of international outrage is registered in Beijing and Chinese leaders are moved to change course in Tibet.”
Both NGOs urge the Chinese government to take back its severe restrictions on Tibetan religious and cultural rights and to engage with urgency in dialogue with Tibetans on the underlying grievances that have provoked the volatile and tragic situation in Tibetan areas of China.
Human Rights Watch urged the EU to take specific steps to advance human rights including developing concrete benchmarks for human rights progress at the summit before holding future rounds of the EU-China human rights dialogues. Those indicators could include locating and freeing people detained, disappeared and/or sentenced for peacefully exercising their rights, and a commitment from the Chinese government to resume meaningful negotiations to address long-standing grievances with representatives of ethnic minority communities, particularly Tibetans and Uyghurs.
“With the Chinese government’s widening attacks on freedom of expression, human rights defenders, civil society activists, and government critics, the EU needs to speak out not just to protest abuses, but to make its expectations for positive change crystal clear,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should send a message that the Chinese government’s status quo on human rights is unacceptable and a threat to bilateral relations. The EU needs to communicate firmly and unambiguously to the Chinese government that long-term, sustainable ties between the EU and China are at risk unless China takes concrete steps to reverse its deteriorating human rights situation,” Richardson said.
On February 8th, Italy’s parliament unanimously passed a resolution confirming the country’s commitment to the human rights record in Tibet and calling on China to put an immediate end to stop repression in Tibet, and engage in dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s representatives to resolve the Tibet issue.
The Tibet Resolution also commits the Italian Government to involve European Union Partners and to promote formal steps with China at the forthcoming summit requesting the immediate cessation of the violence against the Tibetan people and Tibetan monks and nuns, and the establishment of a climate of dialogue and tolerance in the areas populated by the Tibetan minority.
Honorable Gianni Vernetti, who introduced the bill, said: “The Resolution approved today by the Italian Parliament sends a strong message to the People Republic of China requesting an immediate stop of violence against Tibetan people and Tibetan monks and nuns.”
It seems this year’s Valentine’s Day is definitely a working holiday.