President Obama: Call your own Nobel summit, and send China a message
Jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this Friday in absentia. As a Nobel laureate himself, President Obama must take a clear stand on China's human rights abuses. On Friday, he should host a 'freedom summit' with other Nobel laureates.
Defying Beijing by announcing she will attend this weekâ€™s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao, she can help the president fulfill the promise the Nobel Committee saw in awarding him the prize last year. (At least eighteen countries will kowtow to China in planning to join its boycott of the Nobel ceremony.)
No, the president need not go to Oslo himself. While that would rank in symbolism with the Berlin speeches of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, it would be too much in Beijingâ€™s face under present circumstances, and not in the Obama style.
Better suited to his more studied approach, but equally dramatic, he could bring the mountain to Muhammad, so to speak. That is, on Dec. 10, the date of the award ceremony, the president should convene a White House meeting, or a live teleconference, of all living Nobel Peace laureates who, like Mr. Liu, fought oppressive regimes.
That would include Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and the Dalai Lama. Aung San Su Kyi, just released from house arrest in Burma, would surely be blocked from attending, but her absence and that of Chinaâ€™s Liu would speak eloquently. Members of their dissident communities could represent them.
Such a meeting would draw worldwide attention to the human rights situation in China and elsewhere around the globe. The agenda of this â€śfreedom summitâ€ť should highlight each democracy championâ€™s experience in tackling the challenges of despotism and, even more important, the international communityâ€™s role in their respective fights for freedom and recognition for the oppressed.
Obama's clear message to China
In awarding Liu the prize, the Nobel Committee sent a clear message to Chinaâ€™s Communist leaders. After 60 years in power, 30 years of Western support for Chinaâ€™s economic and military modernization, and the international honor of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing must deliver its long-promised political reform.
But recent US administrations have temporized with China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and Beijing would have to â€śagree to disagree on human rightsâ€ť so as not to disrupt the bilateral relationship in the current global economic crisis. Similarly, Mr. Obama has downplayed his predecessorâ€™s initial democracy â€ścrusade.â€ť
In announcing the presidentâ€™s prize, the Nobel Committee made clear it was based on promise rather than accomplishment: â€śDemocracy and human rights are to be strengthened. Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the worldâ€™s attention and given its people hope for a better future.â€ť
In accepting his award, the president rejected the possibility of excusing human rights violators â€śby the false suggestion that these are somehow Western principles, foreign to local cultures or stages of a nationâ€™s development.â€ť China is the main purveyor of that argument.
In his speech, Obama also deplored the human rights depredations in Burma, Darfur, Zimbabwe, and Iran, and said â€śthere must be consequences.â€ť On the United Nations Security Council, China has prevented or delayed the consequences in each of these situations.
By denying the rights of its own 1.5 billion people and collaborating with oppressive regimes around the world (starting with North Korea), China has made itself the global anti-human rights champion.
In his speech at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit in September, the president voiced traditional American rhetoric on democracy and human rights, but failed to mention China. The Liu peace prize afforded him a new opportunity to correct that glaring omission, and he did so by praising the award and calling on Beijing â€śto release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.â€ť
Don't accept Beijing's lame argument
Now, the president should sustain that new beginning by returning to the subject of Chinaâ€™s democracy and human rights problems as often, and as publicly, as President Reagan did with the Soviet Union, inspiring the detained Mr. Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky, and millions of others to persevere in their long struggles for freedom.
No world leaderâ€™s voice on this issue would be more impactful than the American presidentâ€™s. And no leader is better positioned to speak out authoritatively than Nobel laureate Obama. He possesses the same bully pulpit past presidents enjoyed, but with the added international imprimatur of Liuâ€™s and his own Nobel Prizes.
He should tell China the global community can no longer accept Beijingâ€™s lame argument that a fourth of the worldâ€™s population is consigned to a permanent fate of â€śdemocracy with Chinese characteristics.â€ť The Chinese people deserve Chinese democracy with democratic characteristics.
Liu has said that â€śno force can block the human desire for freedom.â€ť On accepting his own prize, Obama said â€śOur actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.â€ť
The Nobel Committee, and Nancy Pelosi, have shown him the way. A legacy awaits.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown Universityâ€™s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.