WASHINGTON – The United States has warned that the toughest crackdown in years on Chinese activists threatens to cloud the high-profile state visit by President Xi Jinping. Yet the issue of human rights is unlikely to dominate the agenda when Xi is welcomed at the White House on Friday.
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.
Still, human rights will get attention.
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.
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.
U.S. concerns go beyond oppression of government critics.
U.S. officials have said that draft legislation in China to police nongovernmental organizations could affect foreign rights activists and the personal and corporate privacy of academics and business groups — a potential setback to deepening the U.S.-China relationship even in the areas that aren't politically contentious.
A lack of candor in Chinese state media reports about economic turmoil roiling global markets has exposed the risks and limitations inherent in Beijing's strict press controls.
"The U.S. is not short of entry points to discuss human rights with China," said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. is in an excellent position to make the case that better human rights protections are not just about defending the activist community in China."
At a dialogue with China on the issue last month, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski said that improvements on human rights were needed by China to set a positive tone for the summit.
But when David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at-large for religious freedom, visited China a few weeks later, authorities detained a Christian lawyer the day before Saperstein was due to meet him, and detained and harassed other religious figures with whom he met. Saperstein called the actions "outrageous."
Although Chinese society has opened up since Washington and Beijing restored diplomatic ties 36 years ago, 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 President Barack Obama. Liu is serving 11 years in prison after calling for democratic reforms.
Foreign governments have, for the most part, become less willing to speak out over rights abuses as China's economic heft has grown. The U.S. remains outspoken, and Beijing's preferred response is to deflect criticism by addressing it in closeted diplomatic settings on its own terms.
"We should see a bigger picture: How do we seek more cooperation between each other while shelving these differences?" said Li Junhua, who led China's delegation at last month's human rights dialogue.
Although U.S. officials maintain that the issue of human rights is on the agenda of its high-level meetings with China, 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.
"The Chinese government recognizes that there will be no cost in their relationship with the United States for continuing to crack down, and if there's no cost, then of course they are going to continue what they're doing," said Carolyn Bartholomew, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission which advises Congress.
China's rights record has the potential, however, to grab attention at U.S.-China summits.
In 2006, a practitioner of the persecuted spiritual group, Falun Gong, heckled Chinese leader Hu Jintao at the White House. When he visited again in 2011 on a state visit hosted by Obama, Hu conceded that "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights."
Xi appears less pliant.
At a November summit with Obama in Beijing, Xi was confronted at a news conference over difficulties faced by some U.S. news organizations in securing visas to cover China. Xi responded with a lecture, using a Chinese proverb to suggest the problem rested not with Chinese authorities but the news outlets themselves.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.