Rights may take second place on Clinton China visit

BEIJING Fri Feb 20, 2009 3:09pm GMT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States will press China on human rights but this will not keep them from working together on the financial crisis, climate change and North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.

Clinton, who openly criticized China's human rights record in a 1995 speech in Beijing, told reporters there is a certain predictability to U.S.-Chinese disagreements on political freedoms, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the status of Tibet.

The United States has long accused China of human rights abuses, has pressed Beijing to grant greater autonomy to Tibet and has sold arms to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province.

Making her first trip abroad as secretary of state, Clinton said three of her top priorities in Beijing will be addressing the global economic crisis, climate change and security challenges such as the North Korean nuclear weapons programme.

"Now, that doesn't mean that questions of Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, the whole range of challenges that we often engage on with the Chinese, are not part of the agenda," Clinton told reporters in Seoul before flying to Beijing. "But we pretty much know what they are going to say.

"We have to continue to press them but our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises," she added. "We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."

Making her final stop on a week-long tour of Asia that earlier took her to Tokyo, Jakarta and Seoul, Clinton said she hoped to sound out the Chinese leadership on what more it may do to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear programmes.

INTERTWINING INTERESTS

Clinton's comments appeared to reflect a pragmatic view that the United States has no choice but to work with China because their interests are so intertwined on the economy, greenhouse gas emissions and security issues.

When her husband, Bill Clinton, was U.S. president she took a different tack in a 1995 speech in which she critiqued Chinese human rights policy in Beijing in what was regarded as the harshest such criticism to date by a visiting foreigner.

"Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organise, and debate openly. It means respecting the views of those who may disagree with the views of their governments," Clinton said at the time without citing China by name.

"It means not taking citizens away from their loved ones and jailing them, mistreating them, or denying them their freedom or dignity because of the peaceful expression of their ideas and opinions."

Human rights groups including Amnesty International, Freedom House and the International Campaign for Tibet urged Clinton to speak out about suspected torture in police custody, censorship and abuses of human rights defenders.

But analysts said Clinton could not afford to jeopardise Chinese cooperation on other issues.

Clinton did plan to make one nod towards religious freedom.

After meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top officials on Saturday, she planned to attend church on Sunday morning, an act that she described as personal but which she suggested could be taken as political.

China has about 40 million active Christians with their numbers evenly divided between state-run and underground churches, including some in people's homes.

The country's ruling Communist Party regards religious and other groups as potential threats to its power and regularly detains pastors and priests.

"I thought I would just go to church," she said with a laugh. "I think that speaks volumes."

(Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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