Foreign Affairs

A Tale of Two Peace Prize Winners

In his remarks to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo last year, Peace Prize winner Barack Obama acknowledged that compared with past winners “my accomplishments are slight.”

Obama, who had been nominated for the prize mere days into his presidency, conceded that there were many others “far more deserving of this honor than I.” Among them, he said, were those “around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice.”

Perhaps the committee took Obama’s words of pretend humility to heart. This year’s recipient, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, fits to a tee Obama’s description of a worthier winner.
But the two Peace Prize laureates are linked in another way. The Obama Administration’s China policy has become a prime impediment to Liu’s vision of a more democratic China.

The committee chose Liu, who languishes with thousands of other peaceful human rights advocates in China’s prisons, for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

Like Obama, Liu is a college professor, a writer and something of a community organizer.
But in many ways he is the anti-Obama. In the late 80’s, as Obama discussed Marx and Mao at fashionable coffee houses in Harvard Square, Liu was imprisoned for calling for legal and political reform in Tiananmen Square.

Today, while Obama dedicates his life to tightening government’s grip on people’s lives, Liu risks his by promoting greater separation of powers and governmental transparency.

If last year’s award seemed to slightly embarrass Obama, this year’s should humiliate him. That’s because Liu’s Peace Prize triumph has placed a spotlight on the Obama Administration’s neglect of human rights in China. 

On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama declared that China’s rise “may pose one of the most important foreign policy challenges to the U.S. in coming years.” Obama promised to be “frank with the Chinese” about their failures to live up to international standards on human rights and to “press them to respect human rights.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign website emphasized addressing China in a way that protects “U.S. interests” and advances “American values.” But the administration’s approach threatens the former by neglecting the latter.

Weeks after Inauguration Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in China, “Our pressing on [human rights] issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”

Then came Obama’s initial snub of the Dalai Lama, and the administration’s conspicuous silence when Liu was sentenced to 12 years in prison last December. Then, during his first trip to China, Obama declined to meet with dissident groups and refrained from confronting Beijing on human rights issues.

In May, in what U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner called a “candid and constructive” dialogue about human rights with Chinese officials, U.S. State Department officials raised “early and often” Arizona’s new immigration law as an example of “a troubling trend in our society.”

Even worse, the Obama Administration is funding the United Nations Population Fund’s China program, which is involved in China’s coercive birth control policies, including forced abortion, the greatest human rights violation of all.

Of course, even if it were inclined to do more, the Obama Administration would have little leverage over the Chinese government.

As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch told the New York Times in late December, “The perception in China is that the United States is confronting the government less on human rights because we owe them money… Every sign of reticence on human rights becomes a metaphor for American weakness.”

China is emboldened because it owns hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. government debt, and because its economy is booming amid a global recession.

In August, China’s economy became the world’s second-largest, and it is projected to surpass the United States’ as early as 2030. China is now the world’s leading exporter, and a new list finds that more than half of the world’s richest women are Chinese.

Human rights is not the only area in which China is thumbing its nose at the United States. It continues to manipulate its currency and has rebuffed the West’s attempts to commit itself to reduce carbon emissions. Recently, Beijing made it clear that it wants the dollar to be phased out as the world’s primary reserve currency.

This is not what was promised. For decades, I have advocated making trade with China dependent on political reform. But many Westerners argued that trade with China would encourage the government to act more responsibly on the world stage—that economic prosperity would lead to democracy in China. Even many conservatives bought in.

But, as the case of Liu Xiaobo shows, economic change has not precipitated political reform. Even as American dollars have poured into China, the country’s repressive political structure remains unchanged. The Communist regime refuses to recognize its citizens’ basic human rights, including the right to religious freedom of China’s 50 million Christians.

In an interview with a New York Times reporter this week, Obama whined about complaints that his administration has not lived up to the promise of his campaign. “The mythology has emerged somehow that we ran this flawless campaign, I never made a mistake, that we were master communicators,” he said. “And somehow now, as President, things are messy and they don’t always work as planned and people are mad at us.”

But the “mythology” was not about a mistake-free campaign. Rather, it was about a President who actually meant what he promised, about China and about so much else.


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