Secretary Clinton's China Candor Draws Criticism

03/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Secretary Clinton's first overseas tour has gotten a lot of attention and deservedly so. In catching up with Clinton, because of being on the road moving from west coast to east (now reporting from Washington, D.C.), one of my favorite moments was when Clinton made a refueling stop that took some in the traveling press by surprise.

We made a standard refueling stop here, between Beijing and Alaska, but to the reporters' surprise, hundreds of military personnel and their families had gathered here for a campaign-style event in one of the airport hangers. No one on the secretary's team had told us this was planned.

[...] The message on the 20,000-mile trip, Clinton said, is "that United States is ready and eager to lead. We can't solve all the problems ourselves. But the world can't solve their problems without us." Then Clinton plunged into crowd, shaking hands and posing for pictures. She had transformed a standard refueling stop into another opportunity for the selling of the Obama administration's foreign policy.

In China, Clinton made it clear that our two nations are inextricably linked: "Our economies are so intertwined... The Chinese know that in order to start exporting again to its biggest market . . . the United States has to take some drastic measures with the stimulus package. We have to incur more debt. The Chinese are recognizing our interconnection. "We are truly going to rise or fall together. ..."

Subtle hint that reminds everyone America's pocketbooks rev China's engines.

But not everyone is happy about Clinton's candor or her efforts to undo the Bush-Cheney double standard when it comes to reality, human rights and telling it like it is. You know, instead of talking in vapid streams of political gibberish that amount to a campaign with no intent to back it up, because "war on terror" policies make a mockery of diplomatic efforts. Of course I'm talking about the criticism coming Clinton's way from human rights activists and others who have taken exception to her statements focusing on economic realities, instead of China's appalling history of subverting human rights:

"But our pressing on those issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." - Secretary Clinton

Amnesty International USA quickly reacted, saying they are "shocked and extremely disappointed" by Clinton's remarks.

"The United States is one of the only countries that can meaningfully stand up to China on human rights issues," he said.

"But by commenting that human rights will not interfere with other priorities, Secretary Clinton damages future US initiatives to protect those rights in China," he said.

Students for a Free Tibet said Clinton's remarks sent the wrong signal to China at a sensitive time.

"The US government cannot afford to let Beijing set the agenda," said Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based advocacy group.

This is just stupid and easy to say when you only have to think about one thing in a vacuum of reality.

As for Clinton's dialogue, think Nixon going to China. Only he could do it back when. Only Clinton could do it and talk economics in the face of what we all know to be true.

First lady Hillary Clinton put herself on the map in China back in the 1990s in a speech that has become famous, the foundation of her foreign policy philosophy on human rights. Secretary Clinton certainly doesn't need nor deserve a lecture from the activist peanut gallery on China's human rights or her commitment to calling them on it when the time is right.

But Clinton's candor is drawing "mixed reviews," according to the Post, though Craig Nelson's comment not surprisingly is the one that nails the issue squarely.

"I think she clearly feels it's necessary to induce realism and perspective to expectations and performance, and to tell the Chinese that Obama knows that we all need to work together, so she is determined not to let less centrally vital issues handicap that," said Chris Nelson, who writes an influential newsletter on Asian policy.

That Clinton would state she knows what Beijing would say when approached about human rights in that country or in dealing with Tibet, especially as we come upon the 50th anniversary of the Tibet uprising, is realistic talk from a person who knows what she's talking about.

"I think that to worry about something which is so self-evident is an impediment to clear thinking," Clinton told reporters traveling with her. "And I don't think it should be viewed as particularly extraordinary that someone in my position would say what's obvious."

No one, certainly not Secretary Clinton, is ignoring the human rights reality in China, a subject on which she's made herself clear.

Anyone refusing to juxtapose our economic entanglements with China as being anything but central today misses that unless President Obama sets a firm foundation from the start with China, doing anything on human rights will be impossible.

Righteous activism oblivious to economic survival is rendered toothless, revealing myopia from having only one thing on your plate at a time.

President Obama's Secretary of State has no such luxury.