'A lot to be done': Hu tackles human rights

US President Barack Obama looks on as President Hu Jintao answers a question at the press conference in Washington on 19 Jan 2011 Chinese President Hu Jintao faced a rare public question on human rights at the press conference

It was, unquestionably, the most important public moment of Hu Jintao's visit to the US so far. The moment President Hu Jintao was put on the spot about China's human rights record.

His answer, when it finally came, was illuminating. But, I'd like to suggest, that some of the significance has been missed, some misread.

Just hearing a Chinese president deal with direct questions on the subject is incredibly rare. In China the heavily state-controlled media doesn't pose them.

And we in the foreign press never get a chance to grill the president. He simply doesn't have to face with the impertinence of an unscripted occasion where we might ask uncomfortable questions.

For all the talk of China's rise in the world, and its new-found confidence, its president has appeared shy about facing the western media.

About Damian Grammaticas

I'm the BBC's China correspondent. This is where I will share my thoughts on life in this rapidly changing economic giant

When President Obama visited China in 2009 and when UK Prime Minister David Cameron came to Beijing last year there was no joint press conference because the Chinese side didn't want one.

Even abroad, when President Hu visited France last year, the French, apparently out of deference to Chinese wishes, took the unusual step of cancelling any joint press event.

So the first thing that seems significant to me is to recognise that it is, uniquely, America that is prepared to stand side by side with China's leaders and deal publicly with questions of human rights. No other nation seems ready to hold China to account that way.

Unthreatening

So what happened when the question was posed? Well first time round, either the translation system failed or President Hu tried to dodge the issue.

Then, when it was posed again, China's leader read from pre-prepared notes. It wasn't the most confident or the most convincing display of statesmanship.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Hu Jintao Chinese President

But again there is something significant here that has perhaps been overlooked. The fact Hu Jintao had his answer already scripted is I think worth noting.

As I understand it the American side warned the Chinese well in advance of this visit that they would have to face uncomfortable questions about human rights and suggested they had better have their answer ready.

So the White House was not prepared to shield China the way others have, but also tried to help them face up to the issue.

What then of the answer President Hu gave? Much is being made of the admission "a lot still needs to be done".

Remember this was scripted. China is on a public relations offensive with this visit. It's aware how negative its image is in some quarters, particularly over the issue of human rights, and it's trying to address that.

So the answer was not strident or confrontational, but an attempt to sound unthreatening, a little humble even. It's the attempt to strike a new tone that is important.

But this wasn't an "unprecedented admission" as some have painted it. Here I think the significance of what President Hu said has been misread.

On any occasion like this Chinese diplomats put a lot of store by the precise phrasing of public statements, so it's worth looking at Mr Hu's exact words.

A man rides a tricycle cart past high-rises in Shanghai on 10 Jan 2011 China's president suggested raising people out of poverty was the key priority

"China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. 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," was what the official translator said.

The important thing here is the repeated stress on "development". China's leaders don't see human rights the same way most in the West do. They define improving human rights as improving living standards, lifting people out of poverty.

President Obama was clearly aware of this. Standing beside President Hu he even explained it for him, saying "I believe part of human rights is people being able to make a living and having enough to eat and having shelter and having electricity."

China has made remarkable economic progress in recent years. Tens upon tens of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. Today the majority of Chinese enjoy living standards that would have seemed impossible 30 years ago.

China's citizens also have many more freedoms than they once did, to choose where they work, who they marry, to communicate over the internet and to travel abroad. President Hu is saying this change will continue.

But I don't think China's president is saying he believes a lot needs to be done about the freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion in China. What he is saying is that China still needs to lift tens of millions of people out of poverty.

Even the statement that "we will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law" doesn't mean he wants to see constitutional democracy in China.

When the Communist Party and its leaders talk of "democracy" they mean "socialist democracy" and that means the Communist Party continues to rule China but seeks to make government more efficient, to appear more responsive to public opinion.

'Different circumstances'

And it's worth measuring President Hu's words against the actions of China's government.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo still sits in a Chinese prison. His crime, "subversion", was to author and promote Charter 08 which is precisely a call for constitutional democracy in China, for free speech, for an independent judiciary, for an American-style separation of powers.

A picture of Liu Xiaobo, next to his empty chair at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on 10 December 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo remains in prison because of his Charter 08 call for democracy

Charter 08 is above all a threat to the Communist Party's continued monopoly on power. There is no sign that Liu Xiaobo is about to be released. And his wife, Liu Xia, who was detained just before the Nobel Prize was awarded last year, is still being held by police, although it's not clear what crime if any she has committed.

Also here in China one of the country's most prominent human rights lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, has been missing for most of the past two years.

He was taken away by state security agents, resurfaced once after international pressure, gave a detailed account of torture he said he had suffered, and then was taken away again. His wife Geng fled to America with their two children.

She's in Washington while President Hu is there, and is demanding to know what has happened to her husband. Other human rights lawyers working in Beijing say the rule of law is getting worse not better.

If you look at President Hu's remarks in Washington he says China respects the universality of human rights, but "we need to take into account the different national circumstances".

China, he is saying, should not be held to western standards of human rights because it's people are poorer, it's population is so big, and it is in what he calls "a crucial stage of reform".

This is not a new position, but a restatement of China's traditional one. It's an argument for why China should be treated differently and the Communist Party exempted from criticism.

Many other developing nations, India among them, don't argue that they should be held to lower standards of human rights, but China does.

So President Hu is saying China's focus will continue to be on development. And his remarks seem to show Beijing wants to damp down international criticism over human rights because it is damaging to China's image.

Movement on human rights and democracy, in the Western sense, does not seem to be on the cards, not just now, not until conditions in China change.

China's own state television chose not to report the president's comments on human rights. They were not judged significant enough to warrant covering here.

On the main 1900 national news on CCTV they were not even mentioned. Instead the bulletin stressed the fact that with the visit President Obama "welcomed China's rise which would benefit the whole world".

The closest the national news came to the subject was to mention that President Hu had said "the two sides should respect each other's value systems, beliefs and development models".

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