(CNN) -- As Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington, the policy of the Obama administration is clear -- at least rhetorically. But will this approach deliver real results on improving human rights in China?
Setting the tone for the talks, Secretary of State Clinton recently delivered a lecture at the State Department, where she laid out a broad-ranging China strategy that places human rights within an international framework of obligations -- and acknowledges the "significant challenges" and "profoundly different political systems and outlooks" between the two countries.
She outlined the three elements of U.S. strategy: regional engagement in the Asia-Pacific, trust building, and expansion of economic, political, and security cooperation. She affirmed that human rights "remains at the heart of American diplomacy," detailing China's serious human rights issues, including freedom of expression and religion, imprisonment of lawyers and legal advocates, and rights of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.
She pointed to the plight of activists and lawyers such as Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng and the harassment of lawyers who advocate peacefully for reform. She also called for the release from prison of political activists, including Liu Xiaobo, a writer and human rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and is serving an 11-year prison sentence for calling for political reforms.
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The Chinese government's bullying tactics at home and abroad in response to the Nobel awarded to Liu Xiaobo are sobering reminders of its zero tolerance for critical voices, and the engagement challenges posed by a leadership distrustful and afraid of its own people.
In a new step to further restrict an independent press, the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China ordered media outlets nationwide not to "oppose the government" and "discuss, debate, and question the contents of political reform" when covering corruption cases -- or even use the phrase "civil society" in reporting.
A report delivered in April, 2010, to the National People's Congress by Wang Chen -- the highest government official responsible for managing online information and the Communist Party of China's top official in charge of external propaganda work -- articulates China's view of the dangers posed by any open information systems, and of China's strategic objectives in internet development to ensure correct and unified opinions and views.
This vision of China's leadership reflects not only a "profoundly different" outlook, but an entrenched party mindset of maintaining power at all costs, including state-of-the art censorship, surveillance, ideological control, detentions, harassment, enforced disappearances, and intimidation.
While the United States is reaching out to China's citizens, in events such as a round-table meeting with Chinese bloggers in Beijing on January 14, China is deploying its considerable resources to extend its soft power abroad through foreign media; Confucian Institutes throughout the world, including in the U.S.; and through extensive academic and cultural exchanges.
The Chinese government's bullying tactics ... are sobering reminders of its zero tolerance for critical voices.
A state-sponsored campaign, launched during President Hu's visit to the U.S., includes video clips featuring celebrities and others. It's aimed at promoting an image of prosperity, democracy, openness, peace and harmony in China, designed for major U.S. media outlets, online, and on big screens in Times Square in New York. A 12-minute film on China's accomplishments in politics, economics, society, culture, science and research, education, the environment and ethnic minority relations, still in production, will be aired in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East and on the internet.
But the best public relations campaign that money can buy will not mask the reality that Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence, and many others continue to be detained and harassed for peacefully advocating for democratic reforms in China.
As the U.S. government navigates the difficult waters ahead toward "deeper, broader, and more sustained cooperation" with China, it needs to recognize that the Chinese government will not be rowing in the same boat, in the same direction, until it respects the rights of its own people to envision their collective future.
To advance true prosperity, democracy, openness, peace and harmony, the Chinese people must be able to exercise -- without fear or loss of liberty -- the fundamental rights and freedoms protected in China's Constitution and by China's international human rights obligations.