When China's Hu Jintao speaks on human rights, check his definition of the term

Chinese President Hu Jintao, at a joint press conference on his state visit to Washington, said that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.” But Hu did not mean what you might think he means.

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
China's President Hu Jintao speaks before offering a toast during a State Dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, Wednesday, Jan. 19, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Chinese President Hu Jintao made a comment yesterday that on the face of it seemed to be an unusually frank admission.

“A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” he told reporters at a joint press conference during his state visit to Washington.

A bit of a given to you and me, perhaps, but not the sort of thing Chinese leaders normally acknowledge.

The trouble is, Mr. Hu did not mean what you might think he meant.

You might think, for example, that one important thing that needs to be done is to free Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning political dissident who is serving an 11-year sentence. For co-authoring a public appeal for democratic freedoms, he was found guilty of “subversion of state power.”

To President Obama, who pressed Hu for Mr. Liu’s release, that is an open-and-shut violation of a universal human right – the right to free speech.

To the Chinese president, however, it is a case of a subversive, treasonable plotting to bring down the state.

Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment “is not a human rights issue and we have made our position very clear,” said deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai before Hu’s trip.

Hu said his government was prepared to “engage in dialogue and exchanges with the United States on the basis of mutual respect and the principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs” on human rights questions.

As often as not, US diplomats have found, that means Beijing expects them to “respect” Chinese definitions of human rights. The US-Chinese human rights dialogue, when it has happened, has generally been seen as talking past each other.

Hu was right, and Obama backed him up, when he said that China had made “enormous progress” in human rights. Thirty years ago, Chinese citizens could not choose their job freely, let alone where they lived.

And human rights include economic rights. China has improved living standards for the mass of its people beyond all expectations.

Those are the sorts of things Hu means when he talks about a lot still needing to be done. Liu Xiaobo, and all the other critics whom the government has locked up, know that all too well. But it seems, however, that ordinary Chinese citizens are not meant to know. When the human rights issue came up at the press conference TV screens in China went blank, according to reports. No one here seemed to hear the entirety of the president's words.

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