This is a good question and the answer is complicated. When President Obama visited China in November 2009 to meet with Chinese president Hu Jintao, he did not meet with several political activists regarding human rights issues in China. Why? The simple answer is, he didn’t want to spoil things with the Chinese during his visit and jeopardize the chances of some type of US-China accord coming out of the Copenhagen talks. Culturally and politically, the Chinese are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as foreign meddling in their internal affairs. Much of this sensitivity stems from China’s negative experience in the 19th and early 20th centuries when western powers such as Great Britain, Germany and France carved up Chinese provinces and exerted considerable control inside the country, mainly for commercial reasons. China reacts very strongly to foreign criticism of its internal affairs, and it regards its human rights record and its treatment of political dissidents against the Communist regime as very much its own internal affairs.
Obama knew going into the summit with Hu that agreement between the US and China is absolutely crucial if any progress is to be made on climate change. He also regarded, as most US Presidents have, the ability of international pressure to change Chinese internal policy toward dissidents as quite limited. We may be horrified at massacres in Tianamen Square or the jailing of Tibetans who protest what they see as Chinese occupation of their country, but honestly, what can we really do about it? If you want to get a climate deal you have to deal with the major polluters, of which China is one. Thus, while Obama is believed to have discussed human rights issues with Hu Jintao, he did not take the politically provocative step of meeting with dissident leaders, which would likely have caused the Chinese considerable offense. They may have retaliated by pulling out of the Copenhagen talks or otherwise refusing to take action on climate change. Certainly Obama didn’t want that result.
Precisely. There is much political theatre when world leaders are involved with China. They have elaborated set up photo opportunities, and the events are lavish and very strict. China is tempermental, and foreign leaders have to be very careful not to spoil ties and upsetting China, particularly when they try and meet with the Dalai Lama, and leaders from Taiwan.
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