As China's leaders await this weekend's visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, they must feel confident that human rights will not significantly burden an already full Sino-American agenda. To be sure, Obama administration rhetoric continues to recognise the importance of political and civil rights in American foreign policy, even with respect to China, a country that the US can ill afford to offend. Last week, a State Department spokesman declared: 'With this president and this secretary, human rights is a very, very high priority' and promised that Mrs Clinton would address China's human rights record on her current Asian trip.
Yet one can forgive foreign governments, international non-governmental organisations and the media for remaining sceptical. After all, they had just witnessed the failure of the US to play any role during the first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council of China's record. Although the Bush administration had refused to run for membership in the council, that did not preclude the US from participating in the review. But unlike the 115 countries that did present questions, evaluations and recommendations, the US was merely a silent observer. The Obama administration 'is still deciding how it wants to interact with the council', an official said.
It may also still be deciding how it wants to interact with China regarding human rights, judging from the lack of emphasis on the topic in Mrs Clinton's maiden speech about Asia policy last Friday.
My own view, however, is that both the Obama administration's UPR abstention and Mrs Clinton's low-key speech may reflect a considered decision to put human rights on the back burner, at least temporarily. America has an urgent need for China's closer co-operation on the global economic and environmental crises, as well as security problems including North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. Raising contentious human rights demands now could seriously obstruct co-operation, especially amid the Chinese government's increasing worries about the country's domestic political and social instability.
Moreover, until President Barack Obama succeeds in restoring America's own reputation for respecting human rights, pressing China for further reforms would only make the US look more hypocritical than it already does.
Yet human rights advocates inside and outside China should not be unduly discouraged. The greatest motivating force for progress must come from within a country, and the Chinese people are increasingly demanding recognition of their rights. Although a government obsessed with achieving 'harmony' too often reacts to growing social protests and democratic ferment with repression unworthy of legitimate rulers, there are also signs of more enlightened official responses, such as sensitive handling of some mass-labour grievances and efforts to reduce the country's huge number of executions.
International pressure will also continue to grow. During the recent UPR, human rights advocates were understandably disheartened at the spectacle of many of the world's worst human rights violators heaping praise on China's impressive economic and social progress while ignoring its systemic abuses of the rule of law and democratic freedoms. Cuba even proposed that China continue to punish those 'who are qualifying themselves as human rights defenders with the objective of attacking the interests of the state and the people of China', a recommendation that Beijing accepted.
Yet this fiasco attracted the scorn of many other countries and influential segments of world opinion that are seriously concerned about torture, arbitrary police detention, secret prisons or 'black jails', massive resort to the death penalty, unfair judicial procedures, restraints on lawyers, absence of political and labour freedoms, suppression of Tibetans, Uygurs and many religious groups, and other violations of minimum international standards.
China's UPR presentation further stoked the fires of international concern. No one begrudged it the opportunity to celebrate lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and dramatically raising health, housing and educational levels. But its rejection of a large number of broadly supported, specific recommendations for improving its political and civil rights performance as too 'politicised' dissatisfied many countries.
And its assertions that 'there is no censorship in the country', the government seeks 'to guarantee judicial independence' and 'there are no such things as black jails' belied its pledge to respond to the UN inquiry 'in a candid and open manner'.
Nevertheless, the UPR proved useful in making and publicising a comprehensive evaluation of China's record. It also elicited some important commitments from Beijing, including the establishment of a National Human Rights Action Plan and legislative reform of its notorious 're-education through labour' and criminal procedure systems so that China can at last ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.
If the Obama administration decides to join the UN Human Rights Council and emphasise human rights in its relations with China, that will stimulate further progress before the council's next China review four years hence.
Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of New York University's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York