President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama this week should put to rest some questions about his administration’s commitment to human rights in China. The meeting, which happened amid a tense period in the U.S.-China relationship, is a welcome symbol of the Obama administration’s dedication to keep human rights on an ever more crowded–and challenging–bilateral agenda.
The meeting with the Dalai Lama added to a growing litany of disagreements currently troubling the U.S.-China relations, including trade imbalances, the recently announced Taiwan arms deal, Internet censorship, and Iran. China reacted predictably to the White House meeting, stating, "China is firmly opposed to Dalai’s visit to the U.S. and his contact with the U.S. leadership. Our position is consistent and unequivocal."
A number of follow-up statements also argued that the meeting would invariably hurt U.S.-China relations. Yet disagreements over meeting with the Dalai Lama are not new. Since 1990, every American president from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush has met the Dalai Lama, often multiple times. In each instance, the Chinese government responded in a similar manner.
President Clinton’s "drop by" sessions with the Dalai Lama in 1995 and 1997 were met with this statement from the Chinese: "We are strongly dissatisfied with the United States for allowing the Dalai Lama to carry out splittist activities in the United States, and with U.S. leaders for meeting with him." And when President George W. Bush was present at the televised awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in 2007, the Chinese government called the event a "farce."
Given this history, any other reaction by the Chinese government to the meeting on Thursday would be considered uncharacteristic. But what is different this time is that the issues of Tibet and the Dalai Lama re-emerge at a particularly sensitive moment for China. Between the United States’ most recent arms deal with Taiwan, growing international concern about a slew of arbitrary detention of human rights activists, and growing unease of widespread oppression of Tibetan and Uighur activists, the Chinese government is especially sensitive to moves it deems threatening to its sovereignty. This acute sensitivity may explain the harsher statements coming from Beijing recently.
President Obama is aware of this and has followed precedents set by his predecessors, making clear that he recognizes Tibet as a part of China and would meet with the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. But President Obama also made clear in word and deed that his administration supports the "preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China" and will speak out when China unjustly imprisons human rights activists in China, among them most recently Liu Xiaobo. The meeting’s greatest message was that that America will always champion human rights, democracy, and religious freedom around the world.
Thursday’s meeting is emblematic of these commitments and an important symbol of America’s moral leadership on issues of human freedom. But the hardest part–advancing human rights in China–comes after the meeting. China’s human rights conditions have deteriorated significantly over the past couple of years, with greater restrictions on online activities, human rights lawyers and activists, ethnic minorities, and migrant workers.
Unfortunately, America’s track record in persuading China to improve its human rights has been tepid at best, and it looks to grow more difficult in light of the growing number of issues on which the United States and China must cooperate. But, as outlined in CAP’s report on advancing human rights in China, there are a number of ways that the administration can pursue a productive human rights agenda in China. At the heart of the list is "ignore the rhetoric, don’t be distracted, and never give up." And that is exactly what President Obama accomplished yesterday.
Winny Chen is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress. Megan Adams is an intern with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.