"As we diversify the ways in which we do business with China, we will continue to champion respect for the rule of law, human rights, religious freedom and democratic principles." So proclaimed Susan Rice, national security adviser, near the beginning of what was billed as a major address last week on Obama administration policy toward Asia.
But as Ms. Rice's long speech unspooled, she had nothing further to say about human rights or democracy in China. She talked about political reform in Burma, and she promised that the United States would support democracy "from Cambodia to Fiji." She spoke of the potential for improved relations with China.
"We seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations," she said, whatever that means. She held out hopes of cooperation in foreign policy, military-to-military relations, energy and climate change. In economics, she said that Chinese leaders have announced "sweeping reforms" that may help the two nations "elevate our economic relationship." She found time to insist that the Chinese modify their policies on currency exchange rates, investment, cybertheft and protection of intellectual property.
But you would not know from Ms. Rice's speech that the prospect of "sweeping reforms" in the economic realm (itself a debated topic among China experts) has been accompanied by the reality, especially over the past year, of an intense political crackdown. American journalists increasingly are denied visas. Chinese bloggers and academics are hounded, fired and imprisoned if they challenge political orthodoxy.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose crime was to call peacefully for democratic reform, is in prison, and his wife is under effective house arrest. "Efforts to silence and intimidate political activists and public interest lawyers continued to increase," the State Department human rights report on China for 2012 acknowledged. Conditions have only worsened since.
Certainly the other topics that Ms. Rice put on the U.S.-China agenda are important; we would never argue that concern for human rights should eclipse them. And perhaps Ms. Rice's reticence is not surprising, given that she serves a president who told the U.N. General Assembly this year that promotion of democratic values was no longer a "core interest" of U.S. foreign policy. Her spokesman noted that one speech does not define a policy, and he said Ms. Rice intends to deliver another address soon focusing on human rights in general.
But when a senior official in an agenda-setting speech on Asia has no message about worsening repression in China, that carries a message of its own.
Dissidents who might have been heartened by a word or two are let to know that they are on their own. Their jailors the Communists who run China are let to know that nothing they do will bother the Americans enough to interfere with business.