The White House this morning released a measured statement by President Obama suggesting China should reform its society and asking China to release imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobao, who receives the Nobel Peace Prize today in absentia.
The problem with it is, it’s measured wrong. The dose of anger and determination is far too weak.
China is engaged in lots of contemptible dealings, including the assertion of its raw power in the region, its dangerous failure to rein in North Korea, the thumbing of its nose at U.S. demands that it play fair with its currency, and is the imprisonment and harassment of scores of people out of fear the Liu award could cause protests.
There must always be some amount of “measuring” in presidential statements. White House statements are not just commentary, they are gauged carefully to have an intended effect. A presidential statement on China is carefully parsed in Beijing to discover its meaning.
So here’s what the president said.
The rights of human beings are universal – they do not belong to one nation, region or faith. America respects the unique culture and traditions of different countries. We respect China’s extraordinary accomplishment in lifting millions out of poverty, and believe that human rights include the dignity that comes with freedom from want. But Mr. Liu reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law. The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible. I regret that Mr. Liu and his wife were denied the opportunity to attend the ceremony that Michelle and I attended last year. Today, on what is also International Human Rights Day, we should redouble our efforts to advance universal values for all human beings.
The statement is riddled with expressions of weaknesses.
This is not a time to be fete China’s “extraordinary accomplishments” and to assert that China’s barbaric leadership indeed respects a human right, the “freedom from want” – which is not usually what we mean by human rights anyway. Liu doesn’t need to be released “as soon as possible,” he needs to get out “now.” And the demand for China to reform itself should be direct, not couched in a remark that “human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law.”
With turmoil in Korea and fears growing in the region about its intentions, China needs a clear signal that the United States is going to stand by its allies. Indirectness like the above doesn’t do it.