“A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” was President Hu Jintao’s well rehearsed answer at his joint White House press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama (above) to the question he rarely has to face in public. There is more news in the fact that he had to give an answer than in the substance of what he said (his earlier European hosts didn’t trouble him with the inconvenience of press conferences). Hu’s full response, as read by his translator:
“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.”
What has been lost in translation is that the primary human right in China is viewed as the right to an improving standard of living for all Chinese. In this regard, a lot unquestionably needs to be done to lift even more Chinese out of poverty and to close the widening wealth gaps. Questions of political rights in, say, Tibet or Taiwan, are questions of national sovereignty. Questions of rights to, say, free speech or religion aren’t even questions.
It has long been Beijing’s position, reiterated by Hu on his visit to Washington that China respects the universality of human rights, but as the president also repeated that “we need to take into account the different national circumstances”. As with so many moments of his Frenemies tour so far, Hu avoided coming off as browbeating, without anything actually changing.