November 13, 2009

By Zhiqun Zhu

When U.S. President Barack Obama makes his first visit to China next week, human rights is likely to be one of the major issues in his talks with Chinese leaders. While it will be a great opportunity for him to express his concerns for human rights in China, he should address it with a different strategy and focus than past U.S. leaders. Instead of openly challenging the Chinese government on issues like political freedom and Tibet, which are bound to anger Chinese leaders and are not really helpful for improving human rights conditions in China, Obama should promote the idea of clean air as a human right.

One of the lingering disputes between China and the U.S. concerns differences on the meaning of human rights. While the US and much of the Western world focus on political, religious and civil rights, China and many developing nations emphasize economic, social and cultural rights. Citing the tremendous progress in improved living standards in China, the Chinese government and many Chinese citizens reject Western accusations of China's dismal human rights record. They ask: isn't lifting 400 million people out of poverty one of the greatest human rights successes in history? Instead of continuing to argue the meaning and scope of human rights, the U.S. and China should take a new approach and seek common ground for genuine cooperation to improve overall human rights in China.

With a narrow and misguided focus on the GDP growth rate, China's rapid modernization in the past 30 years has resulted in a nightmarish environment. Air and water are severely polluted in much of the country. Some studies even suggest that the top 10 most polluted cities in the world are all in China. Respiratory diseases have become the No. 1 cause of death in China.

Blind eye to achievements
All previous U.S. administrations criticized the Chinese government for its human rights violations, but all of them selectively focused on political and religious freedom in China. Many in China understand the importance of democracy and political freedom, but realize that these lofty goals must be obtained gradually. They feel that the U.S. government turns a blind eye to what China has achieved in the past three decades and fails to appreciate the daunting domestic challenges China faces today. Even critics of the Chinese government may not agree with the U.S. government when it openly confronts China with the human rights issue. What the U.S. has advocated seems so distant and detached from the lives of ordinary Chinese. If Obama continues to talk about human rights only through the lens of political and religious freedom during his visit, he is likely to alienate much of the Chinese public. Instead, he should raise China's environmental degradation as a human rights issue and offer the US' strong support for a better environment in China. Clean air is a basic human right that all Chinese care about, but do not have.

Chinese President Hu Jintao announced his government's commitment to cutting greenhouse gases during the U.N. Climate Summit in September. Both China and the U.S. hope that the Copenhagen Climate Conference next month will bring about an agreed framework for climate change. As the world's two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the U.S. and China should take the lead in specifying their goals and measures to address climate change.

The Obama-Hu meeting in Beijing will be a litmus test of how serious they are in curbing greenhouse gases. To a large extent, a successful Obama visit to China depends on whether the two countries will agree to cooperate on clean air in China and elsewhere.

Posted Nov. 13, 2009


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