Obama Brings Up Human Rights as U.S., China Leaders Meet

The United States "strongly" believes that the religion and culture of all peoples must be respected and protected, President Obama said Monday as he laid out a framework of his vision for America's relationship with China.

Before making that statement, Obama acknowledged that the United States and China will not agree on every issue, nor choose to see the world in the same way.

"But that only makes dialogue more important," he said as U.S. and China leaders convened for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Washington.

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"[N]o one nation can meet the challenges of the 21st century on its own, nor effectively advance its interests in isolation. It is this fundamental truth that compels us to cooperate," the president added.

That said, Obama made clear America's belief that "all people should be free to speak their mind" and that their religion and culture should be respected, just as the United States respects China's "ancient and remarkable culture."

"And that includes ethnic and religious minorities in China, as surely as it includes minorities within the United States," he continued.

Though China today is one of the world's fastest growing economies and a world power that many say could rival the United States by the end of the next decade, the communist nation is frequently criticized for its human rights violations and for having a problematic record of interfering with press freedom.

According to a report released earlier this year by the U.S. State Department, the Chinese government's human rights record remained poor last year and worsened in some areas.

Chinese authorities "committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners and used forced labor," it stated.

Moreover, the Chinese government is accused of "severe cultural and religious repression" of minorities and harassment of dissidents and activists.

In response to the heavy criticism, China called the accusations groundless and charged Washington of interfering in the country's internal affairs.

"We urge the U.S. side to reflect on its own human rights problems, stop acting as a human rights guardian, stop interfering in others' internal affairs by issuing such human rights reports," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu to reporters at a news conference a day after the release of the State Department's report on Feb. 25.

Though Obama did not point criticism directly against China in his remarks Monday, the president made clear that the issue of human rights is an area of contention between the two nations.

"Support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. Our nation is made up of immigrants from every part of the world," Obama said as he opened the two-day meeting between leaders from world's biggest developing country and the world's biggest developed country.

"We have protected our unity and struggled to perfect our union by extending basic rights to all our people. And those rights include the freedom to speak your mind, to worship your god, and to choose your leaders. These are not things that we seek to impose – this is who we are. It guides our openness to one another and to the world," he added.

In concluding his remarks at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, Obama said he is looking forward to his first visit to China, where he hopes to know better its leaders and its people.

"Together, I'm confident that we can move steadily in the direction of progress, and meet our responsibility to our people and to the future that we will all share," he concluded.

The first round of the inaugural S&ED is scheduled to end Tuesday.

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