Mum's The Word On Human Rights Talk While Hu's In Town

“Hu Jintao–DROP DEAD!  Hu Jintao-DROP DEAD!”

That was the chant heard across the street from the White House yesterday afternoon, as more than one hundred human rights demonstrators of Chinese origin protested the visit of that country’s Communist strongman to Washington.  Signs denouncing Chinese President Hu Jintao as a criminal and bearing the legend “Tibet is Not Part of China”–a reference to China’s 52-years-long military occupation of the home of the Dalai Lama–were evident.

Inside the White House, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was not talking about human rights or giving any hint that Barack Obama would confront Hu (whose term as President will end shortly) on any issue over which the U.S. is at loggerheads with China: human rights, or Chinese heavy-handedness on currency, North Korea, or Iran.

My colleague Chip Reid of NBC News confronted the President’s top spokesman over just these issues, asking Gibbs whether Obama would “be more assertive, more confrontational with him than he’s been in the past on issues like currency and human rights and North Korea and Iran?”

“Look, I think all those, Chip, are on the docket,” replied Gibbs, “I think all of those are issues that the President has brought up with President Hu in the past and will continue to do so.

“Will he bring them up in a more confrontational style than he has in the past?  Will he push harder?,” pressed Reid,

“Well, look, I don’t — I think it is pretty safe to assume that some of those issues are not issues that China wishes to speak about,” said Gibbs, “and the President brings up — because they are important to our standing in the world and our relationship with the Chinese.  And I expect him to continue to do so.”

Gibbs went on to characterize the relationship between Beijing and Washington as “a cooperative but a competitive relationship” and offered the opinion that  “as in many bilateral relationships, we have — we see the benefits of that and we understand the difficult challenges that lie ahead.  You mentioned Iran and North Korea in the security basket.  Currency is an important — I’d say, currency and trade in the economic basket, and the very important issue and real issue of human rights.”

An exasperated Reid finally asked “[w]ill the President continue what he’s been doing in all his previous meetings with Hu, or will he ratchet up the pressure this time?

Gibbs told him “I think you’ll have an opportunity, one, to talk to the two leaders tomorrow, and I think the President will be firm in outlining the important beliefs of this administration and this country.”

The press secretary went on to defend the decision to hold a state dinner for Hu Jintao (who had hosted the President at such an event during his last trip to Beijing) and never really answered the question as to whether there will be a joint statement from the two leaders. 

Clearly, it was not a good day at the White House for posing the human rights concerns raised by the demonstrators across the street—or, for that matter, any serous concerns that Americans have about their dealings with China as its President meets with ours.