Hillary Clinton called for the release of five detained women’s activists in China on Twitter Monday night. Despite her appeal, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for 2016 had a mixed record on human rights in China during her tenure as secretary of state.
"The detention of women's activists in #China must end. This is inexcusable. #FreeBeijing20Five," Clinton tweeted. She linked to a New York Times story about five feminist activists who were arrested for raising awareness about domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other issues. Chinese authorities have reportedly denied them medication, failed to alert their families that they were in jail, and intruded on private consultations with their lawyers.
Yet just a month after becoming secretary of state in January 2009, Clinton elicited criticism from human rights groups after comments she made in South Korea. "We know what [China is] going to say" about issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights, she said, adding that those "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Activists expressed concerns that she was devaluing human rights to pursue closer cooperation with China on other areas.
Additionally, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has disputed Clinton’s account of the help she provided to him at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. While Clinton wrote in her book Hard Choices that her staff did "what Chen said he wanted every step of the way" after he sought refuge at the embassy, he wrote in his own memoir that U.S. diplomats succumbed to pressure from Chinese officials and urged him to leave the embassy.
"The country that most consistently advocated for democracy, freedom, and universal human rights had simply given in," he wrote.
In an interview last month with Buzzfeed, Chen reiterated that U.S. officials were not "working in accordance with my requests" when he fled house arrest in 2012 and sought protection at the embassy. But he also said he was "extremely grateful for the work [Clinton] did at my behalf" and leveled additional criticism at President Obama. Chen claimed that during a National Security Council Meeting while Chen was at the embassy, Obama decided not to let his case damage the U.S.-China relationship.
Chen eventually secured asylum in the United States for himself and his family.
Clinton has long touted a 1995 speech she gave in Beijing as an example of her global advocacy for women’s rights. She also challenged China’s government to not curtail freedom of assembly and expression.
The Obama administration’s record on human rights in China has come under more scrutiny since a New Yorker profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed that Biden told Xi in one of their first meetings that the U.S. president only supports human rights "as a political imperative." Biden added that the U.S. public position on human rights "doesn’t make us better or worse" than China.
Xi is widely recognized as China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong.