“With its suppression of the Tibetan protests, China continues to compound its abysmal record on human rights.”

So says Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, speaking with a firmness that has been missing from most official U.S. pronouncements regarding the Chinese government’s brutal pre-Olympics crackdown on Tibet.

Feingold pulls no punches when it comes to questions about China’s ill-treatment of Tibet, the nation it occupied in the 1950s and has held captive ever since.

Perhaps this is because Feingold is no newcomer to this issue.

A decade ago, speaking to a crowd of pro-Tibet activists gathered outside the White House, the Democrat declared, “It’s just really frightful- this persecution being perpetrated on the people of Tibet. It’s an attempt to destroy their religion and culture.”

Feingold, then as now a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, used that fall 1997 speech to specifically criticize the administration of President Bill Clinton for failing to press China to end the repression of occupied Tibet.

Clinton, Feingold worried, was more concerned about promoting free trade pacts favored by the Beijing and its corporate allies on Wall Street, than about human rights.

As Feingold said at the time, “The larger issue is just my interest in human rights. I’m trying to keep human rights alive in foreign policy at a time when it seems like everyone just wants to talk about trade.”

The senator was right to be concerned.

In short order, Bill and Hillary Clinton would – with support from Republican leaders in the House and Senate – end the policy of reviewing Beijing’s human rights abuses when making decisions regarding trade relations between the U.S. and China.

By extending permanent most-favored-nation trading privileges to China, the Clinton administration and its Republican allies dramatically reduced the ability of the United States and other countries to pressure Beijing ease the abuse of the people of Tibet.

This summer’s Olympic games in Beijing – which the Chinese are using as a tool to present their country as a responsible political, economic and social player – offer a rare opportunity to put the status of Tibet back on the table. That’s why these issues have arisen this year, and that’s why the Chinese government is doing everything in its power to clampdown on the Tibetans.

And that’s why Feingold continues to argue that the White House – be it in Democratic or Republican hands — and the Congress must do more to defend human rights in Tibet, in China and around the world.

Feingold is not playing partisan politics. He is more than happy to welcome Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s call for China to consider a new policy towards Tibet. But he refuses to accept that Rice’s good words are a sufficient response to China’s bad deeds.

“(The) administration has been slow to react to the crisis,” says Feingold. “The president should clearly condemn the harsh, repressive tactics of the Chinese government in Tibet.”

As has been the case for more than a decade: When it comes to Tibet, Russ Feingold is not just right — his is the voice of conscience that should be echoed by all American leaders.