Can Obama Lecture Xi on Human Rights?

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Exclusive: The Obama administration often scolds China over its human rights record — and President Obama is sure to hammer away at those themes in his summit with Chinese President Xi — but it’s hard for the United States not to look hypocritical given its own checkered history, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

In summit discussions with President Xi Jinping of China, President Barack Obama might want to open lines of communication over human rights by reflecting on America’s own failings, following a script something like this:

I know you don’t like to hear about human rights from us. To your ears, it sounds like lecturing, even hectoring. Even so, I’ve instructed our ambassador to keep raising issues as merited. In our global society, we cannot close our eyes to human rights issues, wherever they occur.

A screen shot of the White House home page on Sept. 25, 2015, noting the summit with China's President Xi Jinping by showing an earlier meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama.

A screen shot of the White House home page on Sept. 25, 2015, noting the summit with China’s President Xi Jinping by showing an earlier meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama.

I’m hoping that you won’t close your ears to what I have to say now. I thought I would try addressing human rights in a different way – a way that you Chinese are familiar with. I want to engage in a little self-criticism.

Since our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights, the United States has led the world in raising consciousness about the importance of human rights. But I’m only too well aware that our practice has often fallen short. Historically, in the case of slavery and the killing and uprooting of Native Americans, our practice has been downright criminal, verging on genocidal.

We are still learning from our painful history and obviously have a long way to go. Almost every day I see reports or videos of unjustified police shootings, disproportionately against people of color. No other country in the world comes close to our record.

Our criminal justice system discriminates against arrestees as well. With some 2.3 million people in jails and prisons, we may have even more people behind bars than you do. A large percentage of them are serving long terms for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses. African-Americans represent…

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