Beijing's discomfiture over President Barack Obama taking the helm in Washington has shown itself in a few telling reactions. The mainland media censored parts of his January 20 inauguration speech in which he referred to earlier generations having 'faced down fascism and communism' and to leaders who clung to power 'through corruption and deceit, and the silencing of dissent'. The same day, Beijing released a defence white paper, complaining about growing US power in Asia. Two days later, in a toughly worded editorial, the English-language China Daily criticised Mr Obama's vision for his country and the world. 'US leaders have never been shy of talking about their country's ambition to be the leader of the world,' the official daily said. However, it predicted Mr Obama would find that the global financial crisis would 'limit his power to act'. While it criticised what it called a 'wrecking-ball approach to world affairs' of his predecessor, George W. Bush, most observers say Beijing had been content to see human rights glossed over for years as Washington focused on its 'war on terror' and economic concerns. Although Mr Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have signalled a shift to a less supine stance on human rights, some observers question whether the new administration would be able to follow through on its promise. 'In the current economic crisis, very few people in high office would [rate] human rights issues high,' said University of Hong Kong law professor Fu Hualing. But Chinese University law professor Michael Davis is more sanguine. 'Though the financial crisis deals them a weak hand, I believe the Obama-Clinton team will feel compelled to pursue more forceful promotion of human rights,' he said. His optimism is rooted in economics. 'The recent 'buy American' provisions [subsequently softened] in the legislative stimulus package signal a greater attention to predatory currency policies - an easier call for a labour-oriented party [like the Democrats],' he said. 'At the same time, this may come with pressure in the human rights area.' Jerome Cohen, of the New York University Law School, has followed the mainland legal system for five decades. His viewpoint was somewhat between that of his two Hong Kong-based counterparts. 'I do not expect Obama to make any big direct change regarding China and human rights but, rather, at first to get our own post-Bush house in order to restore our reputation in the world,' Professor Cohen said. 'Perhaps a year or more from now, having done that, he will be in a position to ask more from China.' Indeed, the consensus among many rights experts is that the US has much ground to make up itself in that area. According to Sharon Hom, executive director of the New York-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights in China, Mr Obama has a lot of work on his hands to restore America's image, which took a beating during the Bush era. 'The US-led war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, torture and denial of basic due process in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and an often arrogant go-it-alone tone and style in international arenas all isolated the United States and undermined its moral leadership and legitimacy,' she said. There were high hopes now for the Obama administration, the Hong Kong-born Ms Hom said. 'This is a real opportunity, not only to remake America, but also to commit to the hard work of building a more peaceful and just world for everyone. That is not possible without a China that respects human rights,' she added. There will be many opportunities this year to focus discussion on human rights on the mainland. Mrs Clinton's visit to Beijing on February 21 and 22, as part of a swing through Asia in her first foray abroad since taking office, provides an early chance for the US side to broach human rights concerns. Then there is the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising in March and the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June. Mrs Clinton's robust speech in favour of human rights at the United-Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 has been cited as an indication of her likely stance on the issue now. However, the US was not a participant in the first big multilateral event directly dealing with human rights on the mainland, namely the consideration of China's report to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on Monday. This was because the Bush administration had shunned the UN Human Rights Council, under whose auspices the UPR session took place. Under the UPR arrangement, each member state's performance is reviewed once every four years. Scores of NGOs have been pressuring Beijing to reform in such areas of concern as the treatment of its Tibetan and Uygur minorities; its use of the death penalty, torture and labour camps; the restrictions on free speech; and the arbitrary arrest and detention of dissidents. 'It's a shame it [the UPR for China] comes so early,' Professor Cohen said before Monday's session. 'Not being a member, we are limited in what we can do even if we decided on a big push with regard to China at the council.' Professor Davis said he expected the Obama administration to eventually engage with the council - which replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission in 2006 - because the Democratic Party had long objected to the 'UN-bashing' evident under the Bush administration. 'Though the council has not been as successful as we would hope, I would still expect them to climb on board and try to breathe greater life into this institution,' he said. The US State Department said on Monday that the Obama administration was reviewing its policy towards the council. Like the commission before it, the council has been criticised for its obsession with Israel and its silence over atrocities in Sudan and Zimbabwe. With Mr Obama's commitment to multilateralism, a more co-ordinated effort to promote human rights is likely. Already there are signs of this, as many countries had been inviting visits from the Dalai Lama, Professor Davis said. He said Beijing's response to outside pressure was 'divide and conquer', on the one hand brandishing lucrative contracts in return for turning a blind eye to rights violations and, also, by stoking nationalism at home to counter perceived interference in its affairs. Apart from concern over problems within the mainland, there has been international consternation over Beijing's backing for some of the world's most notorious rights violators, such as Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Professor Davis said he was not optimistic that Chinese leaders would change course. 'They seem to value the resources these countries provide and will likely stick with their current policies. This remains true even in the face of reduced demand for such resources,' he said. Another reason for Beijing to persist with its current approach was strategic, according to Professor Fu, who suggested that unless it hurt its national interests, there was no incentive to act. 'The question is: do the abuses out there pose a direct and imminent threat to China?' he asked. So what are the prospects for a positive evolution? The experts spoken to hold out little hope for progress in the near term but see the seeds of change sprouting. 'Hardliners seem to be in control of the party Political-Legal Committee, the social and economic conditions are getting worse and the US and other western countries have no leverage or even moral pressure at this point,' said Professor Cohen, adding that Chinese leaders were preoccupied with the economy and stability. 'Repression is their natural first reaction,' he said. 'It's unfortunate that they don't focus more on institutional and legal reforms that might channel a lot of public grievances, petitions and protests into legitimate channels that might reduce the number and severity of social upheavals.' Nevertheless, other experts draw comfort from Chinese citizens' own activism. Ms Hom said there were numerous examples, including lawyers pressing for an independent bar and rule of law, some courageous journalists trying to expose official wrongdoing and the 'Tiananmen Mothers' calling for a historical accounting for the events of June 4, 1989. 'The repression and crackdowns have failed to crush all these voices,' she said. Tom Kellogg, programme officer for the Open Society Institute in New York, and an expert on the rule of law in Hong Kong and on the mainland, suggested Chinese academics and reform-minded government officials could pull their weight, too. 'But perhaps the most important players are Chinese civil society groups,' he said. 'This is actually a bright spot in terms of China's human rights record in recent years. There are more than 300 HIV/Aids NGOs now working in China, and roughly 20 hepatitis-B advocacy groups. More disability-rights groups are beginning to form, which is a much-needed development.' The US government and NGOs needed to find ways of supporting such groups, which, he predicted, would help improve the rights situation. Professor Fu agreed there were domestic forces propelling change but cautioned against outside involvement. 'Foreign or overseas support from the US, Hong Kong and elsewhere are important but can only be indirect,' he said.