China's one-party government is undergoing a leadership change, and both the United States and China have an interest in building constructive relationships.
Vice President Joe Biden visited China last August. This week, China's Vice President Xi Jinping is in the United States. He meets with Gov. Jerry Brown, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California business leaders in Los Angeles today and Friday.
This is no ordinary visit. Xi is one of nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and vice chair of China's Central Military Commission. He is expected to become head of the ruling Communist Party in the fall, and president of China in the spring of 2013.
So this is an important opportunity to address sensitive military issues in the Pacific, economic trade issues, international issues such as Iran and Syria – and, the ever-present irritant in U.S.-China relations, human rights – with the future leader of China.
Even as we seek cooperation and stronger ties in many areas, this is no time to shy away from candid conversations on human rights.
That includes the situation in Tibet. A timely, penetrating and risky piece by McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, published in The Bee on Wednesday, details the situation of ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan province in southwestern China. Since last March, nearly two dozen have set themselves on fire in an unprecedented show of protest against Chinese rule.
Lasseter points out that for his report, a McClatchy reporter "hid on the rear floor of a vehicle under two backpacks and a sleeping bag as it passed through multiple checkpoints." This is the only way the outside world learns what's going on. The Chinese government, he notes, "goes to extensive lengths" to block outsiders from the area. The Internet, of course, is shut off or censored.
As Lasseter writes, the government has built many projects to improve living standards in the province, but ethnic Tibetans "chafe at the government restrictions on free expression of their culture and religious practices."
During his visit, Xi already is urging that the two nations stick to "core interests" – that is, non-interference in China's domestic affairs. Speaking on Wednesday, he said he wants the United States to "honor its commitment to recognizing Tibet as a part of China and oppose Tibetan independence and handle Tibetan issues in a prudent and proper manner."
That does not mean turning a blind eye to events, however. The United States has to be true to its own values of freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom from arbitrary authority.
And even as U.S. businesses press for closer ties and loosening of Chinese trade restrictions, Americans also should be attentive to working conditions in China – such as plants where Apple computer products are assembled.
Clearly, the United States and China have an interest in working through difficulties to forge a long-term relationship. As former diplomat Henry Kissinger has written in his book "On China," consensus "may be difficult," but confrontation is "self-defeating."