Yale Law School Professor Paul Gewirtz was one of five experts called in to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama before his Jan. 19 summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Gewirtz, who advised former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 on relations with China in 1997-’98 and founded and directs the China Law Center at YLS, said in a Thursday interview that he stressed the possibility and importance of cooperation between the two countries in his 75 minute meeting with Obama on Jan. 13.

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“Getting this relationship right will be fateful for the next generation and for the rest of the world,” Gewirtz said. “I’m convinced that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.”

Gewirtz added that he thought the summit calmed tensions in both nations that had arisen due to mutual distrust. U.S.-China cooperation is important to address problems involving trade and access to markets, as well as to work towards solutions for climate change, nuclear proliferation and genocide, he said.

Last week, Gewirtz published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “What America and China Must Not Forget,” in which he articulated many of his suggestions for more positive relations between China and the U.S.

China’s reputation in the press often focuses on human rights abuse and its authoritarian regime, but Gewirtz said his time there has shown him that many people in the country are working towards change.

“I emphasized that although China is a one-party authoritarian state where many human rights abuses take place, China is not at all a monolith,” he said. “There are many reformers who have space both in the government and outside to effect change, so there are therefore realistic reasons to think that cooperation with China is possible.”

Jianying Zha, one of four human rights activists who also attended the meeting at the White House, said she agreed with Gewirtz’s remarks. She added that her advice to the president focused more on the importance of cultural sensitivity.

“Chinese can be very touchy, since there is acute memory of past humiliations by the West,” she said. “The President should understand there have been very lively debates on human rights within the Chinese community in terms of our own constitution, which is actually a pretty liberal one.”

Gewirtz, who was in China when he was invited to meet with Obama, and cut his stay there short, said meeting the President was a “rare privilege,” and described the Obama as a careful listener.

He also stressed the importance of increased cooperation between legal experts in both countries, which he said is part of the work of the China Law Center.

“The president is himself a graduate of Harvard Law School and he taught at University of Chicago, so he very much understands the importance of the rule of law and legal institutions in the domestic life of the country, in making a country attractive to foreign investment, and in making a country comply with international legal norms,” Gewirtz said.

In addition to Gewirtz and Zha, human rights expert Andrew Nathan of Columbia, wife of former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord ’59 Bette Bao Lord, and Chinese human rights advocate Li Xiarong, who lives in exile in the United States, attended the meeting.

Clarification: January 29, 2011

An earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that Gewirtz believed that the talks between Obama and Hu Jintao on human rights, military relations and North Korea were successful. In fact, he only stated that the summit was “largely” successful in easing public tensions between the two countries.