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Dinner & Diplomacy: Top Human Rights Executive Joins Hu at White House

A table setting for the state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama for Chinese President Hu Jintao is shown at the White House, 19 Jan 2011.
A table setting for the state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama for Chinese President Hu Jintao is shown at the White House, 19 Jan 2011.

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  • Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss his dinner at the White House

  • Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss global human rights trends

Human Rights Watch takes aim at U.S. President Barack Obama in its latest report on the state of human rights around the world. The group says the American leader has been too soft on repressive regimes that are also key trade partners, like China, opting for eloquent statements and quiet dialogue rather than concrete public actions.

But Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, says the recent U.S.-Sino summit in Washington shows the Obama administration is taking human rights in China more seriously. Not only did the issue come up in Mr. Obama's talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and at a White House press conference, but the administration also invited Roth to the state dinner. Roth shares his experiences with VOA’s Kate Woodsome.

Listen to the full interview:

The White House was practicing some pretty creative diplomacy by inviting you to the dinner.

“I think having me as the executive director of Human Rights Watch present at the dinner was a statement. And to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t just a token presence. I was seated in the main state dining room at a table that included the top China director at the White House, the U.S. ambassador to China and the Chinese ambassador to the United States — a  very senior figure within the Chinese foreign ministry. And I was seated only one seat away from him with only the U.S. ambassador’s wife in between us.

We had a spirited conversation, a lengthy conversation about everything from whether or not Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was appropriately imprisoned, whether he was a threat to China.  I, of course, was arguing that he was simply exercising his right to free expression and should have been freed. The ambassador [Zhang Yesui] arguing that he represented a danger to China and for some reason should be imprisoned.  We didn’t agree in the end, but it was very important that with the U.S. government’s backing, I was able to make this argument in a pointed, direct, prolonged way, of the sort that I doubt the ambassador hears very often.

So we had a very long conversation that touched on a range of human rights issues, including the Chinese government’s disinclination to have serious conversations with human rights groups. I said to the ambassador that I hoped the evening was the beginning of a new trend rather than a one-time exception.”

Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss global human rights trends:

Were you able to have any relaxed banter with the Chinese ambassador?

“We actually did, yeah. We actually talked a bit about family and life. It wasn’t all business, because naturally you want to build a certain rapport in a situation like that. I was very much helped by Mrs. Huntsman, the wife of the U.S ambassador to China, who was the one sitting between me and Zhang. The three of us talked about some personal things as well as business, and I thought that was important to do, because it did help to build a connection and that can be important over the long term.”

You also had a face-to-face encounter with President Hu Jintao.

“I did.I only saw him in the receiving line. It wasn’t as if he was mingling at the cocktail hour or table-hopping during the dinner. So my ability to speak with him was more limited. And after briefly saying hello to President Obama, I went on to President Hu and said who I was, explained that I was the director of Human Rights Watch. And said I that I was interested in having a very public dialogue, a very candid dialogue, with the Chinese government of the sort we maintain with governments around the world, including the United States.  That this is normal practice, that governments around the world deal with Human Rights Watch and our colleague organizations, and we would hope that China would do the same.

Now unlike my conversation with the Chinese ambassador, which was a real sustained conversation, this exchange with the Chinese president was fairly perfunctory. It was in the receiving line and had to go through a translator. He kind of smiled and shook my hand and we had to move on because there were people behind us in the line. So I can’t say that that was the most satisfying exchange. But the one with the Chinese ambassador was much more real.”

Could you have gained this kind of access in any other setting?

“I think there was no way I could have seen President Hu in any other setting. I have not at this stage  met anyone else quite at Ambassador Zhang’s level. I mean, formally, yes, I had met other Chinese ambassadors but Ambassador Zhang is seen as a likely future foreign minister and he has personally refused to meet with Human Rights Watch over the years, both with his posting in Washington and earlier during a posting in New York when he was China’s ambassador to the United Nations.

So this was an opportunity not only to meet with, but have a serious conversation with a fairly senior Chinese government official, one who is on the rise, who is part of China’s future. He was frankly my most important target, if you will, when I went into the White House and to my delight I was seated one seat away from him.”

What were you thinking?

“Well, I frankly was very grateful Jeffrey Bader [the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian Affairs] and the people in the White House that put this together. They knew what they were doing. So, that I took as a sign that the Obama administration was adopting a more serious approach to human rights in China. That it was not going to try the misguided approach of last time in which it tried to sweep human rights under the rug. But, rather, it was going to stay true to its values and talk about human rights in a serious kind of central way, even if that would have been uncomfortable to the Chinese.”

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