The visit to China this week by the U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, one of the strongest critics of Beijing's human rights record in the last two decades, has spurred speculation as to what she might do during the trip, the official purpose of which is to discuss climate change.
Ms. Pelosi declined at a briefing to say whether she planned to discuss human rights, saying only that she wanted to secure support for a global pact on reducing carbon emissions, in advance of a major international gathering on climate change scheduled for December in Copenhagen.
The lawmaker condemned the Tiananmen Square military crackdown of 1989 and angered the Chinese government in 1991 when she visited Beijing and, together with two other members of Congress, unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square that said, "To those who died for democracy in China."
Since then, she has remained a vocal critic of China and, last year, urged President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
This trip is reminiscent of the visit to Beijing in February by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." It is 20 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and the Chinese government is still not ready to talk about the event, despite the publication of the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the former party leader who was put under house arrest from 1989 until his death in 2005 for having sympathized with the students.
However, this does not mean that there has been no progress on human rights during the intervening years. China has acceded to quite a few human rights covenants, which means that it has accepted the right of the international community to take an interest in the human rights situation in the country.
This year, for the first time, it issued a human rights action plan for 2009 and 2010. The steps taken may be small but they do reflect genuine progress.The Obama administration needs to decide on its China human rights policy. Bill Clinton began by linking China's trade status and human rights, then uncoupled them and sought to condemn China in the United Nations, an effort that was a spectacular failure.
The George W. Bush administration was particularly strong on religious freedom. But, as Bush rightly pointed out in his last major speech in August: "Ultimately, only China can decide what course it will follow.... Change in China will arrive on its own terms and in keeping with its own history and its own traditions."
In the long run, there is little doubt that China will adopt political reforms and greater respect for human rights. But that does not mean that there is nothing for the rest of the world to do in the mean time.
In fact, there is something that Ms. Pelosi in particular can do, on this trip. She can quietly put pressure on China to release some of its political prisoners, such as Liu Xiaobo, a principal drafter of Charter 08, a document signed by thousands of people in China that calls for an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Mr. Liu has been detained without trial since December.
But an even more urgent case is that of the rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been "disappeared" since February. Mr. Gao's lawyer's license was revoked and he himself was tortured for 59 days in 2007 after he criticized the government's persecution of members of the Falun Gong. One reason given by his tormentors for his treatment was that he had written to the United States Congress.
Mr. Gao's wife, Geng He, and their two children fled China secretly and were given political asylum in the United States in March. Last month, she wrote an open letter to the United States Congress expressing gratitude to the American government and appealing for help.
"Honorable members of the United States Congress," she wrote, "I entreat you to go a step further in helping our family by putting an end to the Chinese government's persecution of my husband, lawyer Gao Zhisheng."
It would be entirely appropriate for Ms. Pelosi, the Speaker of the Congress, to respond to such an appeal. If she can, through private diplomacy, obtain the release of this man, it will go a long way towards justifying the Obama administration's low-key attitude towards human rights in China.