If President Bush made religious rights the centerpiece of US human rights policy towards China, President Obama will likely focus more on labor and free expression rights, especially with regard to the Internet. Moreover, the positive reaction to his election in the international community could put the new administration, which is set to utilize channels such as the United Nations with more vigor than its predecessor, in a good position to garner support from countries and bodies that maintain dialogues with China.
Although many of Bush’s policies proved to be unpopular and the object of much criticism, his China policy was on the whole highly regarded. It is likely that President Obama will continue with the high-level dialogues initiated during Bush’s presidency, including the Strategic Economic Dialogue. The long-running, if frequently suspended, human rights dialogue will almost certainly continue, with the next session due to be held in Washington later this year.
Obama’s advisors on China are concerned by Beijing’s policies to monitor the Internet and to punish those who use the Internet to voice anti-government sentiments. Some advocate promoting technologies that can circumvent the “Great Firewall of China,” while others are more interested in negotiating an agreement with the Chinese government that allows for a freer exchange of information between the two countries via the Internet. (In a reflection of the times, thought is being given to having the two presidents regularly address people of the other country by webcast.)
Human rights issues related to Tibet could be a flashpoint for relations with China during the early period of the Obama administration. Obama is troubled by human rights problems in Tibet—he called for Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in large part because of the suppression of the March protests in Tibetan areas—and several of his closest advisors on Asia and human rights were active on Tibetan issues while serving in the Clinton administration. A priority with the new US administration is likely to be winning Beijing’s agreement to allow the Dalai Lama to visit his home county in Qinghai Province.
President Obama’s stance toward China on human rights will differ markedly from that of the Bush administration in one important respect. Obama will seek to use the United Nations human rights mechanisms—widely disparaged and often disregarded by Bush’s team—to engage in a multi-lateral dialogue with China. It is expected that Obama will seek to have the United States join the Human Rights Council, a body that the Bush administration boycotted.
With the election of a new US president well-received in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, the Obama administration can expect an improvement in the image of the United States worldwide. Key polls of international public opinion about China and the United States will be conducted by the BBC and Pew Research Center in the first quarter of 2009. A surge in positive feelings toward the United States, along with such moves as the closure of Guantánamo Bay, may well underpin a more robust human rights policy toward China and other countries accused of widespread abuses of human rights.