Huntsman, China and 2012

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Yesterday in Shanghai, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Hunstman–who also happens to be a potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate–made news by criticizing the Chinese government’s human rights record in a kind of valedictory speech. His remarks called attention to something I hadn’t been aware of: an unusually harsh crackdown underway there against political and human rights activists, which the New Yorker‘s Beijing-based Evan Osnos calls “the Big Chill, an ongoing sweep of Chinese writers, activists, lawyers, and others, which constitutes the most intense crackdown on expression in years.”

Here’s the key passage from Huntsman’s remarks:

It should come as no surprise, for example, that the United States will continue to champion respect for universal human rights, which is a fundamental extension of the American experience and a bedrock of our world view.

Long after I depart Beijing, future Ambassadors will continue to visit American citizens like Dr. Feng Xue, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing state secrets and is now serving an eight-year sentence in prison far from his family in the United States. They will continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.

The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur. We do so not because we oppose China but, on the contrary, because we value our relationship. President Hu and Premier Wen have both acknowledged the universality of human rights. By speaking out candidly, we hope eventually to narrow and bridge this critical gap and move our relationship forward.

It wasn’t exactly blistering stuff. But context is important. The U.S. typically airs its criticisms of the Chinese government in private. James Fallows, another China expert just back from the country, found the comments surprising:

His statement was unexpected, in that ambassadors usually avoid “meddling” in host-country affairs this way, especially with one foot out the door; and it was heartening, because what has been happening in China over the past six weeks is the most unsettling step backward there in a very long time. More on the crackdown itself soon. It’s too bad, again, that Huntsman muddied the end of his ambassadorship with possible presidential-campaign positioning, because in this latest statement he should be seen as speaking for the whole American nation and not any partisan subset.

News coverage from Asia-centric beat reporters suggests that Huntsman may in fact have been acting in concert with an Obama State Department, which has been complaining more openly of late about Beijing’s crackdown. So perhaps there’s no partisan or selfish agenda at work here. However, it is worth bearing in mind how large China has come to loom in the American voter’s mind. (That was one of the key takeaways from Joe’s road trip across the country last fall.) Beijing is sure to be something of a villain in the 2012 campaign, and particularly in the Republican primaries. So whether by design or not, it’s surely useful for Huntsman to leave his post with a record of having stood up to Beijing’s Communist oppressors.

His departure comes later this month, after which Huntsman, restricted from overt politicking while in his post, will be free to pursue openly any designs he has to challenge the president he now serves. No doubt the fact that he is speaking at a New Hampshire college’s commencement next month is purely coincidental.