Clinton puts human rights issue on backburner

March 12, 2009 — by Uttara Sivaram

America would surely be a very different place if Barack Obama had run for president of the PTA instead of for the presidency. After all, winning over minivan-driving, Blackberry-wielding mothers is usually a tad easier than capturing the hearts of Americans across the nation. In fact, the world would be a distinctly different place if everyone followed that kind of lead—doing things and going places simply in the interest of expediency.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton, our newly minted secretary of state, decided to dig her hole to China and address the public there about what her aims were going to be during her term. That was commendable of her, since the U.S.’s cordial relationship with the Chinese is the only thing that’s keeping America afloat in its recent economic flood. Clinton’s plans did not stop there, however, and she soon had her audience double-taking as she bluntly told everyone that she would be focusing her time and effort on the looming threat of global warming while unceremoniously pushing the hot and extremely controversial topic of China’s human rights violations to the backseat. It wouldn’t be surprising if Obama at this point had punted his hypo-allergenic dog out of the window in frustration.

One can understand his chagrin. After all, Clinton had been doing so well in her new post—instead of paying highly publicized house calls to various presidents and prime ministers, she visited Jakartan and Indian marketplaces to meet with the local people and learn about their day-to-day hardships. Clinton’s beginnings as secretary of state truly befitted a former frontrunner of the presidential election. In fact, while visiting Asia, she could do no wrong until she reached her most important pit stop. And unfortunately for her, what happens in China does not stay in China.

The roar of approval Clinton had once enjoyed died down after her speech, as one can imagine. Of course, the Chinese government kept a steady round of applause for her, undoubtedly with a sigh of relief as well. After all, she’s giving China a pass to emerge into this new era of change with a clean slate. Agreed, the charismatic new U.S. government really shouldn’t be alienating any countries at this point, but, when all is said and done, there are innocent civilians in China getting killed under communist rule. Basic human rights are being denied to the Chinese people while Clinton is publicly announcing her concern about whether her front lawn is going to turn permanently brown in the next couple of decades.

One has to admit, there’s some substance to Clinton’s prioritizing on global warming. It would have been nicer, however, if she had kept her specific agenda in her head. Nothing good can come out of giving the world a blueprint of her plans for the future. The world is not Clinton’s playground, and she cannot seriously believe that in the rarefied air of high diplomacy, her opinion will be respected just because she comes right out and says it.

Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese human activists, hopes to reach the Chinese government’s ears with their cries for justice. The group demands what Americans take for granted: freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion, election of public officials and other basic rights. Clinton’s priority-rich speech made the Charter 08 supporters nearly apoplectic with rage, especially since many of those who had signed the manifesto had been arrested prior to her arrival in China.

Clinton may have charmed her Chinese hosts, but she certainly put a grimace on the faces of countless Chinese citizens hoping for change in their country. Clinton cannot simply push human rights to the back burner just because global warming has a wider horizon. Yes, it’s true, trying to change China’s mind on policy matters can be like walking on a treadmill—just because you’re huffing and puffing from the seven miles you’ve just run doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere—but still, Clinton should not shrink from the challenge.

Rather, she should push even harder to pressure the Chinese government to slowly begin much needed reforms. After all, wasn’t it she who had spoken so passionately about the outrages being committed in Tibet? Clinton is a seasoned sailor when it comes to politics, but she still has a lot to learn about sending a message in the interest of inspiring, not imposing. The current administration has given Clinton a long, long leash. One can only hope that she uses it to good use, and not to hang herself with.

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