When George W. Bush was president, Democrats criticized him for focusing relations with China primarily on economics and softening rhetoric on human rights. Now Democrats are in office, and not much has changed: The administration is focusing on economic issues and global warming in its dealings with China -- not on human rights.
The Democrats' continuation of Bush's quiet diplomacy on human rights has been conspicuous almost from the start. Secretary of State Clinton barely mentioned the issue during her initial trip to China in February. In May, House Speaker Pelosi, for years an outspoken critic of China's human rights performance, followed suit.
And in Italy this month, President Obama pointedly sidestepped an opportunity to lambast the Chinese over their crackdown on Uighur protests in western China, telling reporters covering a meeting of the Group of Eight nations that he hadn't been fully briefed and didn't want to comment.
An official White House statement released later said the United States was "deeply concerned" over reports of deaths and injuries in western China, but added that "reports, so far, are unclear about the circumstances ... so it would be premature to comment or speculate further. We call on all in Xinjiang [Province] to exercise restraint."
James Mann, the journalist-turned-scholar whose 2007 book, "The China Fantasy," chronicles the actions of successive administrations and congresses toward human rights in China, sees little difference between Bush's approach and that of the Obama administration.
"It's really more continuity than change," he says. "As far as we can see, the Democrats have not been aggressive. If anything, it's been quite the reverse."
China's latest crackdown on the Uighur protests and rioting in Xinjiang Province, in which 200 people died, has rekindled the debate over how aggressively the United States should press China on human rights. Mann argues quiet diplomacy hasn't worked and the United States should ratchet up its efforts. Traditionalists say America will gain more by holding course.
Charles Freeman, China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, contends that while a more aggressive approach might be "cathartic" for U.S. human rights activists, it later would prove counterproductive by prodding Chinese leaders to hunker down and view the United States as an enemy.
As both the Bush and the Obama administrations have argued, the U.S. relationship with China is far broader than it was even a decade ago, and Washington wants Beijing's help on vital issues, from economics and trade to climate change and dealing with North Korea and Iran.
The Chinese government is so sensitive about human rights that making the issue a focal-point is likely to preclude progress on vital topics. Beijing reacted so harshly to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's protests over China's handling of the Tibet uprising last year that it's still frosty in dealings with his government.
Despite the crackdown in Xinjiang, China hasn't stood still on human rights. By and large, individual Chinese enjoy far more personal freedoms than they did a few decades ago. They can travel pretty much at will. They have some freedom of assembly. They meet freely with foreigners. They are freer to pursue jobs they want.
And while authorities still imprison people for political reasons, there aren't as many arbitrary executions and long-term sentences to Communist Party "re-education" camps as there were through the 1980s. Freedom of speech still has its limits, but authorities are visibly more permissive than they were a decade or two ago.
"Measured against the situation 20 years ago, there's no comparison," Freeman says.
To many experts, the big problem is that while China's current technocratic leadership has adapted to the western economic system, it still views democracy -- and dissent -- as a threat, and seems more determined than ever to stifle any challenge it fears might get out of hand.
Thus Chinese President Hu Jintao abruptly left the G-8 meeting in Italy to deal with the unrest in Xinjiang, and later bolstered a regional official's warning that authorities would act harshly against -- even execute -- the instigators. That he went home even though it was a great embarrassment spoke volumes.
Yet it's not clear how much a hard-line U.S. policy would accomplish. The unprecedented prosperity China has enjoyed has spawned a younger generation of urban Chinese that is more nationalistic than its elders and more resentful of criticism from foreigners, especially the United States.
At the same time, Beijing is likely to be confronted with more protests and unrest, particularly in its outlying provinces, as China's urban-rural economic disparity increases.
How to fashion an approach that is effective and not designed merely to please human rights activists here at home "is going to be a major challenge for the administration," Freeman says. For now, however, the White House still believes it has the right mix. Prospects are that it will take more than the Xinjiang incident to change that view.
This article appears in the July 25, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.