Opinion

President Obama: Call your own Nobel summit, and send China a message

Jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this Friday in absentia. As a Nobel laureate himself, President Obama must take a clear stand on China's human rights abuses. On Friday, he should host a 'freedom summit' with other Nobel laureates.

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While blamed for her party’s defeat in November’s elections, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is showing President Obama the way to regain his footing in the international arena.

Defying Beijing by announcing she will attend this week’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao, she can help the president fulfill the promise the Nobel Committee saw in awarding him the prize last year. (At least eighteen countries will kowtow to China in planning to join its boycott of the Nobel ceremony.)

No, the president need not go to Oslo himself. While that would rank in symbolism with the Berlin speeches of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, it would be too much in Beijing’s face under present circumstances, and not in the Obama style.

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Better suited to his more studied approach, but equally dramatic, he could bring the mountain to Muhammad, so to speak. That is, on Dec. 10, the date of the award ceremony, the president should convene a White House meeting, or a live teleconference, of all living Nobel Peace laureates who, like Mr. Liu, fought oppressive regimes.

Related: How Nobel committee will mark this year's peace prize without recipient Liu Xiaobo

That would include Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and the Dalai Lama. Aung San Su Kyi, just released from house arrest in Burma, would surely be blocked from attending, but her absence and that of China’s Liu would speak eloquently. Members of their dissident communities could represent them.

Such a meeting would draw worldwide attention to the human rights situation in China and elsewhere around the globe. The agenda of this “freedom summit” should highlight each democracy champion’s experience in tackling the challenges of despotism and, even more important, the international community’s role in their respective fights for freedom and recognition for the oppressed.

Obama's clear message to China

In awarding Liu the prize, the Nobel Committee sent a clear message to China’s Communist leaders. After 60 years in power, 30 years of Western support for China’s economic and military modernization, and the international honor of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing must deliver its long-promised political reform.

But recent US administrations have temporized with China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and Beijing would have to “agree to disagree on human rights” so as not to disrupt the bilateral relationship in the current global economic crisis. Similarly, Mr. Obama has downplayed his predecessor’s initial democracy “crusade.”

In announcing the president’s prize, the Nobel Committee made clear it was based on promise rather than accomplishment: “Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened. Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.”

Related: Nobel peace prize for Liu Xiabao: a boost for democratic ideals in China

In accepting his award, the president rejected the possibility of excusing human rights violators “by the false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nation’s development.” China is the main purveyor of that argument.

In his speech, Obama also deplored the human rights depredations in Burma, Darfur, Zimbabwe, and Iran, and said “there must be consequences.” On the United Nations Security Council, China has prevented or delayed the consequences in each of these situations.

By denying the rights of its own 1.5 billion people and collaborating with oppressive regimes around the world (starting with North Korea), China has made itself the global anti-human rights champion.

In his speech at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit in September, the president voiced traditional American rhetoric on democracy and human rights, but failed to mention China. The Liu peace prize afforded him a new opportunity to correct that glaring omission, and he did so by praising the award and calling on Beijing “to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.”

Don't accept Beijing's lame argument

Now, the president should sustain that new beginning by returning to the subject of China’s democracy and human rights problems as often, and as publicly, as President Reagan did with the Soviet Union, inspiring the detained Mr. Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky, and millions of others to persevere in their long struggles for freedom.

No world leader’s voice on this issue would be more impactful than the American president’s. And no leader is better positioned to speak out authoritatively than Nobel laureate Obama. He possesses the same bully pulpit past presidents enjoyed, but with the added international imprimatur of Liu’s and his own Nobel Prizes.

He should tell China the global community can no longer accept Beijing’s lame argument that a fourth of the world’s population is consigned to a permanent fate of “democracy with Chinese characteristics.” The Chinese people deserve Chinese democracy with democratic characteristics.

Liu has said that “no force can block the human desire for freedom.” On accepting his own prize, Obama said “Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”

The Nobel Committee, and Nancy Pelosi, have shown him the way. A legacy awaits.

Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.

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