Can we have a grownup discussion about human rights?

Michael Posner, the Obama administration's top human rights official, has become the latest target of right-wing ire. At issue is Posner's recent remark about Arizona's controversial new immigration law, which he made during a press briefing Friday about the U.S. human rights dialogue with China:

QUESTION: Did the recently passed Arizona immigration law come up? And, if so, did they bring it up or did you bring it up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.

Posner, a heretofore obscure State Department official, is getting ripped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh ("How the hell do all these wackos end up in the administration?"), John Hinderaker ("What an idiot!"), and the New York Post ("Posner shames America"), and it's not hard to see why. Setting aside the immigration issue, conservatives don't like it whenever Americans criticize their own country's human right record, let alone in a way that could be construed as granting "moral equivalence" to a repressive place like China.

Posner clearly wasn't doing that, but I have to wonder what U.S. officials really think about this human rights dialogue. And how does the conversation actually go? U.S. official: "We think China should improve its human rights record." Chinese official: "Thanks for your input. I'll tell Hu Jintao right away! How come we didn't think of this sooner?"

But let's have a grownup discussion about this.

Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Right Watch, complained in a recent FP article that "The Chinese government doesn't send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock." She suggests high-level U.S. officials make regular efforts to speak out about human rights in China, so that the United States doesn't send the message that it doesn't see this issue as a priority (which, let's be honest, is true to a certain extent).

Perhaps there are also ways to tinker around the margins. Posner suggested that the real action will take place at a working level, outside the glare of the political spotlight. "[T]he more we kind of filter these out into different expert agendas or areas where we’re having ongoing discussions about law reform, about labor, about whatever, I think we’re more likely to make real progress over time," he said.

Is that naive? I don't think Posner, who comes to his position from decades of work at Human Rights First, is some kind of rube. He knows what China's all about. What we have here is a disagreement over tactics: What's the best way to get things done with a budding authoritarian superpower? The hectoring and pressure that conservatives seem to favor may make us feel good about our moral superiority, but it probably won't accomplish much. What are we going to do, sanction the world's second-largest economy? The Chinese aren't like citizens in the Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc, who saw no future in communism and whose miserable governments they hated; their government is competent and their economy growing at a 10 percent annual clip.

China's come a long way since the Mao era, when the Chinese state wanted to control every activity. There have been ups and downs over the years, but the general trajectory is toward greater freedom and rights for Chinese citizens. There are clearly limits to what the Communist Party will tolerate, and it's hard to imagine a fundamental improvement in human rights without fundamental political changes. Over the long haul, the need to keep a dynamic capitalist economy running smoothly is going to create more political space in China. But a little dialogue can't hurt in the meantime.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images


Obama's aunt granted asylum

After a decade-long legal battle, President Barack Obama's Kenyan aunt, Zeituni Onyango -- remembered as "Auntie Zeituni" in Obama's Dreams From My Father, has won the right to remain in the United States. 

The basis for Onyango's asylum request was never made public, but her lawyer Margaret Wong said last year that Onyango first applied for asylum "due to violence in Kenya." The East African nation is fractured by cycles of electoral violence every five years.

Onyango initially came to the U.S. in 2000 just for a visit, Wong said. Her first request for political asylum in 2002 was rejected, and she was ordered deported in 2004. But she didn't leave the country and continued to live in public housing in Boston.

Onyango's status as an illegal immigrant was revealed just days before Obama was elected in November 2008. Obama said he did not know his aunt was living here illegally and believes laws covering the situation should be followed. Wong has said that Obama wasn't involved in the Boston hearing. The White House also said it was not helping Onyango with legal fees.

Onyango's lawyer Margaret Wong says the judgment "really does give people hope." Though I'm not really sure how inspiring the case really is for those facing similar battles without nephews in the White House.