Obama Says There’s Been an ‘Evolution’ in Human Rights in China—Even Though China Lacks Freedom of Religion and of the Press and Is Run by Communist Party

January 19, 2011 - 5:19 PM

President Hu Jintao of China

President Barack Obama welcomes China's President Hu Jintao during a state arrival on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that there has been “evolution” in human rights in China over the last three decades, even though that country does not allow for freedom of the press or freedom of religion, continues to imprison political dissidents (notably Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo) and is run by the Communist Party.

“And I want to suggest that there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years since the first normalization of relations between the United States and China,” Obama said. “And my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change.”

During a joint White House news conference with Obama and Chinese President President Hu Jintao, a reporter asked Obama, “Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people? Do you have any confidence that as a result of this visit that will change?”

Obama said he and the Chinese president had discussed human rights at length.

“China has a different political system than we do,” Obama said. “China is at a different stage of development than we are. We come from very different cultures with very different histories. But, as I’ve said before and I repeated to President Hu, we have some core views as Americans about the universality of certain rights--freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly--that we think are very important and that transcend cultures.”

Obama said he has been “very candid” with Hu on human rights. Obama agrees with seven previous president that “we can engage and discuss these issues in a frank and candid way, focus on those areas where we agree, while acknowledging there are going to be areas where we disagree.”

“And I want to suggest that there has been an evolution in China over the last 30 years since the first normalization of relations between the United States and China,” Obama said. “And my expectation is that 30 years from now we will have seen further evolution and further change.”

Obama did not specify any specific areas where he believed China has progressed in expanding freedom for its people.

The White House is holding a state dinner in Hu’s honor Wednesday night.

Hu did not answer the question at all.

Later in the press conference, another reporter pressed the matter that Hu simply skipped earlier. “President Hu, first off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights, which you did not answer. I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.”

China’s president spent an extended amount of time explaining why he did not previously answer the question, that he was fully prepared to address the matter and that China believed in the universality of human rights.

“First, I would like to clarify, because of the technical translation and interpretation problem, I did not hear the question about the human rights,” Hu said. “What I know was that he was asking a question directed at President Obama. As you raise this question, and I heard the question properly, certainly I’m in a position to answer that question.”

“President Obama and I already met eight times,” Hu continued. “Each time we met, we had an in-depth exchange of views in a candid manner on issues of shared interest and on issues toward each other’s concerns. And on the issues we have covered, we also discussed human rights.

“China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights. And in the course of human rights, China has also made enormous progress, recognized widely in the world,” Hu said. “China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights. And at the same time, we do believe that we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights.

“China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform,” Hu continued. “In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights. We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people, and we will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country.

But, Hu also stressed non-interference with China.

“As President Obama rightly put it just now, though there are disagreements between China and the United States on the issue of human rights, China is willing to engage in dialogue and exchanges with the United States on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,” Hu said. “In this way, we’ll be able to further increase our mutual understanding, reduce our disagreements, and expand our common ground.”

In its most recent report on human rights in China, published last March, the U.S. State Department noted that the Communist Party still legally and in practice controls the government of China.

"The People's Republic of China, with a population of approximately 1.3 billion, is an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party constitutionally is the paramount source of power," said the State Department report. "Party members hold almost all top government, police, and military positions."