President Obama disappointed many Chinese political dissidents during his first trip to China this November by skirting the issue of human rights. Obama postponed a meeting with Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and did not meet with dissidents before coming back to the U.S. On November 18, the New York Times blog Room for Debate asked a panel of Chinese law, history, and culture experts, including co-director of the NYU School of Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute Jerome Cohen, what effect Obama’s relative silence might have.

Cohen was joined in the discussion by Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University; Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; and Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

The real question, Cohen asserts, is whether any progress was made behind closed doors when Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao met confidentially. “The two leaders’ public press conference, Obama’s Shanghai “Town Hall” speech and the Joint Statement were de-fanged of strong human rights initiatives,” Cohen wrote, “but did his hosts give any ground in private?”

Posted November 19, 2009