Relatives of Chinese dissidents were set to meet Wednesday with the No. 2 U.S. diplomat as the Obama administration sought to demonstrate it won't gloss over human rights during this week's state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But the message was in danger of backfiring after the wife of one prominent dissident, Gao Zhisheng, who says he was tortured with an electric baton during years of solitary confinement, refused the invitation.
"They haven't talked to us in five years, for all the time we've been here, so why should we attend a meeting now?" Geng He told The Associated Press from her home in Cupertino, Calif. Gao himself vows to never leave China despite the hardships and having to live apart from his family.
The United States has warned that the toughest crackdown in years on Chinese activists threatens to cloud the high-profile visit by Xi, who arrives in Washington on Thursday and will meet with President Barack Obama.
Yet the issue of human rights is unlikely to dominate the agenda at their Oval Office meeting Friday, which is followed by a state dinner.
As China emerges as an economic and military rival that Washington both competes and cooperates with, other issues tend to get top billing at the summit table. Prime U.S. concerns are cybercrime, China's island-building in the disputed South China Sea and building momentum for a global deal to combat climate change.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that human rights would get attention. National Security Adviser Susan Rice met Tuesday with representatives of civil society organizations to discuss draft legislation in China that could hamper the work of international and Chinese groups.
"We believe that people should have the right to speak freely. We believe that journalists and NGOs (nongovernment organizations) should be able to operate freely, and we are going to be very clear about that not just with China but with any country in the world," Rhodes said.
Foreign governments have, for the most part, become less willing to speak out over rights abuses as China's economic heft has grown. But in a move that will annoy Beijing, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet Wednesday afternoon with relatives of several Chinese dissidents and civil society activists.
But human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng opposed his wife Geng taking part. Geng on Tuesday posted on her Twitter account a letter from her husband telling her that such a meeting would be futile while U.S. politicians rub shoulders with the head of China's ruling Communist Party.
Gao detailed in an AP interview, his first in five years, the torture and other mistreatment he faced before his release in August 2014. At the time of his release he was barely able to speak or walk and still lives under near-constant guard.
Geng wants her husband's case to be raised in talks between Xi and Obama, but has little hope it will be.
"I think talk about trade, economic relations cannot be separated from human rights. They should put human rights at the front of the conversation, but I don't think they are willing to do that," Geng said.
Since taking the presidency in 2013 and becoming the most powerful Chinese leader in three decades, Xi has cracked down on encroachment of what he views as Western-style freedoms in China's increasingly prosperous and connected society. His administration has tightened controls on religious minorities, including a government campaign to remove crosses and demolish Christian churches in an eastern province -- a move that has drawn condemnation on Capitol Hill.
The Obama administration is under pressure from Congress and an array of rights activists to speak out. Ten senators have voiced concern over Xi's "extraordinary assault" on civil society ahead of the pomp-filled summit. This summer, Chinese authorities rounded up more than 250 human rights lawyers and associates. According to Human Rights Watch, 22 are still held.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said he and several other lawmakers will host Chinese activists and former political prisoners Friday to pay tribute to them and send a message to both the Chinese and U.S. governments that human rights matter to the American people.
But the topic shapes the relationship less than it did a quarter-century ago. When China cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds, it had direct and negative consequences as the U.S. scaled down ties.
Although Chinese society has opened up since then, the Communist Party retains a monopoly on political power. According to the State Department, there are tens of thousands of political prisoners. They include Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the year after Obama. Liu is serving 11 years in prison after calling for democratic reforms.
A dozen Nobel peace laureates, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have written to Obama urging him when he meets Xi to call publicly for the release of Liu and his wife Liu Xia, who is under house arrest.