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US treads warily over China rights
Can the US succeed in urging China to act on human rights while encouraging trade?
Last Modified: 23 Oct 2008 02:22 GMT

The Uighurs say the Chinese government has oppressed them for years [EPA]

Washington DC is perhaps a rather strange choice for someone accused of being an active terrorist to make their home.

But Rebiya Kadeer, 60, with her long, grey hair tucked underneath a traditional Uighur cap, marches through the US capital confident that there is little chance she will be detained.

Kadeer has lived in exile in the US since being released from jail in China after serving a seven-year sentence for involvement in separatist activities, activities that the Chinese government says involve "terrorist" groups.

From her office a stone's throw from the White House, she lobbies the US government to push China to allow greater freedoms and autonomy for the Uighurs, a majority Muslim minority, who live in Xinjiang, her homeland.

Warm reception

The reception she has received in the US has been warm.

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Pictures on her office wall show her in the 1990s in fond exchanges with then-president George Bush, his wife Barbara and other supporters in the US Congress.

And she is keen to highlight how much the current Bush administration has done to support her cause.

"The American government has negotiated with the Chinese government to prevent the execution and repression of Uighurs, urging them to give us the same treatment as the Han Chinese," Kadeer says.

But it is a policy which has not won George Bush, the current president, any friends in Beijing.

It also exposes serious contradictions in his government's own ideological direction when you consider that 17 Uighurs are currently interred without being charged at Guantanamo Bay.

US dilemma

"They give time to say nice words about democracy and supporting people who believe in freedom but rarely make a decision that is a tangible policy decision"

Dana Rohrbacher, Republican congressman for California

The cause of the Uighurs, the Tibetans, Falun Gong and other groups who claim oppression by the Chinese government presents a serious dilemma for any administration in Washington.

While public opinion might demand that the US government speaks up for the voiceless and oppressed, China today is a formidable power that needs to be engaged, not enraged.

Recent presidents, both Democrat and Republican, while happy to vocally support some of these issues, have rarely censured China in any serious or substantial way.

"This administration has been similar to every administration that I've witnessed since Reagan left office," says Dana Rohrbacher, a Republican congressman for California.

"They give time to say nice words about democracy and supporting people who believe in freedom, but rarely make a decision that is a tangible policy decision," she said.

One very real option open to the next president - if he felt China was not meeting commitments to maintain human rights - would be to withdraw its "most favoured nation" status, which carries with it low trade tariffs and other benefits.

Such an option, however, is unlikely in a world where trade with China is so vitally important.

And as the US lurches to avoid a recession, it is unlikely to risk angering one of its major trading partners.

Covert support?

Will the US still be able to push a
rights agenda with China? [EPA]
The other possibility, and one which many Chinese suspect is already happening, is to covertly support so-called separatist groups.

Professor Zhang Hongliang of Min Zu University in Beijing points to documented evidence of CIA activities in Tibet during the 1960s.

He says he thinks the US is still trying to destabilise modern China in order to neutralise a rapidly emerging superpower.

"Premier Wen Jiabao has promised to help the American financial markets, but as a reward the US is selling advanced weapons to Taiwan, meeting with the Dalai Lama and announcing that East Turkestan terrorists can stay in the United States," says Zhang.

And as China's economic and diplomatic power rises, it's going to become increasingly complex for a US president to push the agenda of human rights while maintaining good relations with one of its most important economic partners.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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