Can Obama Lecture Xi on Human Rights?

Exclusive: The Obama administration often scolds China over its human rights record and President Obama is sure to hammer away at those themes in his summit with Chinese President Xi but it’s hard for the United States not to look hypocritical given its own checkered history, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

In summit discussions with President Xi Jinping of China, President Barack Obama might want to open lines of communication over human rights by reflecting on America’s own failings, following a script something like this:

I know you don’t like to hear about human rights from us. To your ears, it sounds like lecturing, even hectoring. Even so, I’ve instructed our ambassador to keep raising issues as merited. In our global society, we cannot close our eyes to human rights issues, wherever they occur.

A screen shot of the White House home page on Sept. 25, 2015, noting the summit with China's President Xi Jinping by showing an earlier meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama.

A screen shot of the White House home page on Sept. 25, 2015, noting the summit with China’s President Xi Jinping by showing an earlier meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama.

I’m hoping that you won’t close your ears to what I have to say now. I thought I would try addressing human rights in a different way, a way that you Chinese are familiar with. I want to engage in a little self-criticism.

Since our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, the United States has led the world in raising consciousness about the importance of human rights. But I’m only too well aware that our practice has often fallen short. Historically, in the case of slavery and the killing and uprooting of Native Americans, our practice has been downright criminal, verging on genocidal.

We are still learning from our painful history and obviously have a long way to go. Almost every day I see reports or videos of unjustified police shootings, disproportionately against people of color. No other country in the world comes close to our record.

Our criminal justice system discriminates against arrestees as well. With some 2.3 million people in jails and prisons, we may have even more people behind bars than you do. A large percentage of them are serving long terms for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses. African-Americans represent only about 13 percent of our population but more than 40 percent of state and federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses.

We don’t usually think of drug arrests as a human rights violation, but the effects of our drug policies on families, communities, and entire ethnic groups have been downright devastating, creating a long-term underclass with minimal access to education, jobs, and support services. I’m trying to reducing the length and disparity of drug sentences, and to respect the right of states to decriminalize the sale and use of marijuana, but I admit I haven’t given this matter the attention it deserves.

Within our prisons, mistreatment continues at some institutions, but perhaps no abuses are worse than widespread and prolonged use of solitary confinement. Tens of thousands of prisoners are in some form of segregation at any given time. This incredibly harsh form of punishment is considered by some authorities as a form of psychological torture. It reflects badly on our country that it remains so widespread, and looking back I wish I had led greater reforms in this area as well.

This won’t come as any revelation, but our criminal justice system especially penalizes the poor, who cannot afford rising bail costs, and who bear the brunt of many municipal fines that are designed to raise local revenue. Reforms are taking place in some jurisdictions following the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, but it remains a widespread stain on our practice of justice.

The exodus of Syrian refugees to Europe has recently called the world’s attention to the plight of migrants and immigrants. Our country has little to boast about on that score. In one recent 12-month period, our customs and border protection forces arrested more than 68,000 children who fled terrible poverty and violence in Central America and Mexico.

I confess that my own administration has, in response to political pressure over immigration, greatly increased the number of people detained and deported in recent years. Even when families have good reason to seek asylum, we treat them like criminals or national security threats. On the plus side, last year I signed an executive order to give temporary legal status to more than 400,000 immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years or more, or have legal children.

Our country is surprisingly backward on some issues of women’s rights, including the right to an abortion and even to contraception. As you know, ongoing struggles with religious conservatives make these issues extremely contentious. We face a potential shut-down of our government over the issue of federal funding of Planned Parenthood clinics which provide basic health services to women, even though funding of abortion is already banned.

Finally, and I could go on with many other issues, I’m saddened and embarrassed that at this late stage of my second term in office, the United States still holds more than 100 prisoners without charge or trial at Guantanamo Bay. I would never have imagined when I first took office that this blot on our record would remain. I am pleased to say, on a related matter, that I did end the use of torture when I took office, though critics still take me to task for not holding anyone accountable for breaking U.S. and international law relating to this practice.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I know my government can’t be credible when it speaks up about human rights in China or any other country until we take steps to address our own shortcomings at home. It’s a lot easier for me to righteously condemn your government’s mistreatment of dissenters than for me to look in the mirror at our own misdeeds, but if we aren’t willing to do the hard work of making change happen at home, we won’t stand much chance of making change abroad.

I know that if I just smugly sit here and tick off all the human rights problems in China, as if we have none in our own land, you will consider me a hypocrite. Our effective communication will end.

I don’t expect any response from you now, but I hope you’ll reflect on my words. I challenge you someday to try a little self-criticism of your own, not the rote kind you and your father were subjected to during the Cultural Revolution, but a genuine kind that leads to self-improvement and improvement of your nation. Thank you.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]

9 comments for “Can Obama Lecture Xi on Human Rights?

  1. Mortimer
    September 28, 2015 at 18:09

    Modern “laws” are very easily abrogated thru tech application.
    The current upstart with Volkswagon is a clear case-in-point.
    What was a potent sales point has been detected to be a fabrication.

    As and So- the US self-portrait as the beacon of liberty & justice is a complete, damnable Lie.
    Soon after Eisenhower’s speech, our gov’t Overthrew democratically elected gov’t’s in Guatemala and Iran– not because of “human rights” but on behalf of CORPORATE INTERESTS alone.

    Only our somnambulism and narcissism and arrogance in the belief
    that we are this “indispensable” nation enables us to follow the
    pied piper into the clutches of plutocratic/authoritarian nationalism —

    We’re only one or two national elections away from such a fate.
    How many more millions of innocent civilians have to die
    or gruesomely suffer by reason of our “First World” arrogance?

    When will the authentic altruism as practiced by Father Barrigan, for example
    or they who published FBI files that exposed FBI murders and
    multiple other Plots against we-the-people in pursuit of “lawful” rights?

    In the daily pursuit of life and liberty, we miss significant details
    like the motherboard in the auto that controls emission
    What do we CARE or THINK about as we get on to our job/destination?

    How does it facilitate a rule of law as opposed to “laws of the jungle”
    when abject derivation becomes the swinging vine to pots of gold
    with manifold riches collected as spoils of economic/industrial war.?

    The approaching election of our 45th President demands one
    Massive Surge of voters to overwhelm the Authoritarians who
    seek to overthrow the original concept of building a “perfect union.”

  2. Mortimer
    September 28, 2015 at 11:34

    “Frankly, I cannot accurately label the US as a civilized or “First World” nation. The US is not civilized like Canada, the US is a barbaric nation. Hopefully the minority faction of the powerful who are ethical & pro-USian, like Sanders, are able to reform the USA.” — ProNewerDeal

    The oft evoked mantra that we are a nation that lives by the so-called “rule of law” is a
    received/believed political fallacy.
    What we live by is the power of wealth, by reason that, the “rules” continuously accommodate the fancies of oligarchs and not-so-much the will of “we the people.”
    In that regard, the US is, most definitely, a “First World” nation following the philosophic structure of 17th century European East India Company economic structure of dominion/domination over “subjects” whose will is meant to be controlled by “rules of law” that are accommodatingly flexible and are disturbingly protective of those who control and write the “rules.”
    The “rules” always Favor some and marginalize the “others” as it advertises the notion of “liberty and justice for all” —- this Is and Always has been absolute bullspit. A self aggrandizement that has kept the euphemistically named “Third World” aka “Developing World” in a boxed economic subjugation and exploitative prison for 5 or 6 hundred centuries of WORLD HISTORY.

    The entire history of the whole “First World” up to and including the USA is one of bellicose barbarism, domination and inhumane military brutality.

    An up to the minute point of proof is the Euro/American point of view that they can dictate the leadership in the sovereign nation of Syria. ” Assad has to go.” — The Original Intent was “regime change” in Syria. Why do we have Authority to “change regimes” and preside over the deaths and carnage and displacement of MILLIONS OF INNOCENT HUMAN BEINGS !!!!!!!! ?

    • Mortimer
      September 28, 2015 at 14:07

      I must affirm to you, ProNewerDeal, I firmly agree with all that you said prior to the last paragraph. I tend to write from an historical perspective because the dynamic shift into our tech age has virtually erased all relevance/recall of the past.

      The below excerpt is a statement from a (generation ago) WW 2 decorated General/ US President lay out what ought to be applauded as a “righteous” or the correct international position vis-a-vis world foreign affairs.
      If not for our “Sole Superpower” status, I’m sure it’d be a Badge of Honor for the American people in today’s manic depressive world.
      BTW; keep in mind that ‘old’ word about those who forget history… —- forget that! – “Modern” Americans in 2015 are so stultified by social media tech Manners & Customs that near and far history is completely obsolete and irrelevant. What a shame.
      The below offers a “What If” scenario to current US foreign policy persuasions… .


      Address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower “The Chance for Peace” delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16,1953.

      The way chosen by the United States was plainly marked by a few clear precepts, which govern its conduct in world affairs.

      First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.

      Second: No nation’s security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only ineffective cooperation with fellow-nations.

      Third: Any nation’s right to form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable.

      Fourth: Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.

      And fifth: A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.

      In the light of these principles the citizens of the United States defined the way they proposed to follow, through the aftermath of war, toward true peace.

      This way was faithful to the spirit that inspired the United Nations: to prohibit strife, to relieve tensions, to banish fears.
      This way was to control and to reduce armaments.
      This way was to allow all nations to devote their energies and resources to the great and good tasks of healing the war’s wounds, of clothing and feeding and housing the needy, of perfecting a just political life, of enjoying the fruits of their own free toil.

  3. ProNewerDeal
    September 26, 2015 at 20:56

    good article.

    I’d add the lack of a civilized health system, with healthcare as a universal human right, like Canada’s Medicare For All, or UK’s “Veterans Affairs For All”-style National Health Service.

    0bama killed a Medicare Buy-in Public Option. The Harvard Public Health profs’ studies noted that 0bama’s “Affordable Care Act” (ACA), kills 30K USians annually, whereas the pre-ACA Repub status quo kills 60K USians. There is bipartisan agreement between DLC rightwing Dems like 0bama/Hellary & Repubs like McConnell/Romney/Jeb! that protecting the US Sickcare Mafia’s oligopolistic profits, that are 2X+ the costs of civilized OECD nations like Canada, is more important than human lives, they just differ on the details. Besides the deaths, many more USians face medical bankruptcy. Examples of both the deaths & medical bankruptcies are shown in the Michael Moore “Sicko” documentary.

    While 0bama/Jeb!s continuously cry about the Terrist Boogey Man Du Jour TM like ISIS, the 0bama/Jeb!s & their Sickcare Mafia’s owners, massacre many more USians than the Al Qa3das could ever hope to; the 0bama/Jeb’s ANNUALLY continue 10-20X deaths as the one-time 3K death toll of the Sep 11 attack.

    There are other corporate sources of mass murder of USians, including preventable medical errors (such incompetence of a physican being too lazy to wash their hands before surgery, or Physician A being lazy to tell other Specialist Physician B key relevant information in the medical records/paperwork), preventable work accidents & sickness deaths due to non-enforcement of OSHA laws, pollution-caused sickness deaths.

    Frankly, I cannot accurately label the US as a civilized or “First World” nation. The US is not civilized like Canada, the US is a barbaric nation. Hopefully the minority faction of the powerful who are ethical & pro-USian, like Sanders, are able to reform the USA.

  4. Eddie
    September 26, 2015 at 11:04

    This satirical piece even seems to imply in the first few paragraphs that the US is/has-been EVER really concerned about human rights, in and of itself. From what I’ve read and seen, it’s never really been anywhere near a primary driver of any US policy, at best being a tacked-on, supplementary excuse given when other more dominant reasons (enumerated or tacit) are in-play. Even when a US politician tentatively moves a little further in that direction, as for instance a Jimmy Carter did somewhat as POTUS, he’s quickly excoriated by the conservatives for it and replaced by a militaristic, anti-human rights individual like Reagan (i.e.; think Central American leftists killed in the 10’s/100’s of thousands, etc).

    I have to admit to being conflicted as to whether it’s good or bad that the US raises the human rights issue. The ‘good’ side is obvious — it might bring about real human rights improvements, though that’s very debatable when it’s NOT followed by appropriate actions on the part of the US. The ‘bad’ side is that it trivializes the whole subject as a mere political stumping exercise, the international equivalent of a campaigning politician kissing babies or shaking hands (an activity that is probably privately looked upon as a necessary evil, without any meaning besides it’s obvious pandering factor).

  5. John Stefanyszyn
    September 26, 2015 at 11:01

    President Xi Jinping confessed his belief in FREEDOM, RIGHTS, and EQUALITY for he declared, in a press conference with President Obama (Leader of the FREE World), that China has the “right to choose their own independent development”.

    I believe that the USA declared the SAME when they rebelled and separated from King George.
    ….Prime Minister Netanyahu & Israel believe the same.
    ….President Abbas and the Palestinians believe the same.
    ….President Putin and Russia believe the same.
    ….the European nations believe the same.
    ….the leaders of Iran, of Saudi Arabia, of Egypt, of other Middle East and Africa nations believe the same.
    …. “Pope Francis” believes the same for the Roman Catholic (general) church.
    …. the Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, believe the same.
    …. the ISIS (ISIL), ironically, believe the same.

    ….oh yes, the homosexuals also believe in the same FREEDOM and RIGHT to choose their own independent development….which President Obama fully supports and advocates.

    President Obama has stated that governments must reflect the will of their people…that each nation gives life to this “democracy (self-rule)” principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people…and that they have the right to determine their own destiny.
    ….President Xi Jinping is doing it according to the Chinese tradition.

    Yes, this IMAGE of FREEDOM is worshipped and glorified by all as the “god of fortresses” for it advocates each to do what is right in their own eyes, to define “good and evil” as per one’s desires and interests. All of mankind wears this MARK of FREEDOM upon their forehead and hand.

    And this FREEDOM, as a “light” of peace, dictates , as an overarching system, that it is RIGHT & GOOD, a right – a human right, to be free (without judgement) to worship ANY ‘god’.

    But there is ONLY ONE CREATOR, Who clearly said that man is to worship ONLY HIM….that man is not to worship any other gods. In other words HE said that man is NOT FREE to worship any other gods, warning man that if man were to do so that he would suffer the judgement and punishment of death for this disobedience (for this self taken freedom).

    The Lord Jesus Christ said that we are to worship ONLY the One Lord your Creator and HIM Alone to serve in obedience and love, love for HIM first and foremost and love for, to do GOOD according to the One True Way, to the fellow man.

    Very soon, the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Creator, will return, as a thief in man’s eyes, to rule the earth in obedience and power according to the Will of the One Creator and NOT according to man’s first love for “his freedom”, for his desire to serve and magnify oneself (XES) as a ‘god’.
    …and man will weep and clench his teeth in intense anger when his freedom will be no more.

    The Lord Jesus Christ said to repent and to serve ONLY Him, the One true Way of Life.

    • Rob Roy
      September 26, 2015 at 18:51

      John Stefanyszyn: Don’t be silly.

  6. Bill Bodden
    September 25, 2015 at 19:43

    Pigs will fly before any American politician makes a statement anywhere near this proposed speech.

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