Clinton pragmatic in approach to Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2009, 12:00am

When Hillary Rodham Clinton's best-selling autobiography, Living History, hit mainland bookshelves in 2003, she was reportedly outraged to hear that criticisms she had made while on a previous trip to Beijing about the suppression of women's rights had been deleted.

Thirteen years after those famous remarks at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Mrs Clinton, the freshly sworn-in US secretary of state, returned to China at the weekend, but this time with a more nuanced message.

Gone were the fierce remarks that once won applause from rights groups, and in their place was the acknowledgement that tackling the financial crisis, climate change and security should take precedence over human rights and Tibet issues.

In a string of meetings with leaders and officials, Mrs Clinton repeatedly stressed that China and the US should work together, and she called on Beijing to strengthen ties.

Leaders responded positively, with President Hu Jintao saying it was 'of ever greater importance than any time in the past' to develop Sino-US relations, according to Xinhua.

Mrs Clinton's trip is seen as a testing of the waters ahead of the policy changes under the administration of US President Barack Obama.

Yu Wanli, an associate professor at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said sensitive issues such as human rights and Tibet would be pushed to the periphery as both sides realised co-operation was the most productive way to move forward.

'Mrs Clinton may have come to understand that, rather than doing something that won't have any concrete significance such as criticising the sensitive issues, it's more sensible to put aside those issues and work on something meaningful now.'

Frictions would still arise, Professor Yu said, but relations between the two powers would be mainly based on co-operation. 'I would say Mrs Clinton did pretty well to get her message across in this trip,' he said. But Mrs Clinton's softer line towards China has already angered human rights groups at home.

In an apparent attempt to pacify the critics, Mrs Clinton held a round table with 22 high-profile women, including several rights campaigners, after visiting a state-sanctioned Christian church yesterday. Elderly HIV/Aids activist Gao Yaojie, who shot to global fame for blowing the whistle on the tainted blood trade on the mainland in the 1990s, was among the attendees. Dr Gao has been under strict surveillance, and her presence at the meeting would almost certainly have required approval by Beijing.

The retired gynaecologist was stopped in 2007 from going to the US to receive an award from Vital Voices Global Partnerships, a charity group backed by Mrs Clinton. The decision triggered international controversy and Beijing reversed its stance. Other women invited by Mrs Clinton were mainly representatives from government-affiliated institutes, journalists and entrepreneurs.

Throughout the trip, which also included visits to Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea, Mrs Clinton's approach was marked by a soft, human touch as she sought to use the trip to repair the US image in Asia.

During her visit to a green power plant in Beijing on Saturday, Mrs Clinton took everyone by surprise when she took time out to shake hands with a group of Tsinghua University students that were there to greet her.

'She shook hands with every single one of them. It took us by surprise,' a witness at the scene said.