UPDATED at 3:40 p.m. EST on 04/07/2017
As U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in Florida, rights groups hit out at the apparent absence of human rights from an agenda dominated by North Korea's nuclear program, Taiwan and trade.
"Any absence of human rights from the agenda ... would risk emboldening governments across the globe to pursue divisive, toxic and dehumanizing politics," London-based Amnesty International said in a statement as Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan sat down to dinner with Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at Trump's Spanish-style Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday evening.
The two leaders began Thursday with cordial meetings during which Xi called for cooperation with the United States on trade and investment and invited Trump to visit China. With more substantial talks scheduled for Friday, Trump was expected to raise longstanding concerns about China's trade practices and press Xi to do more to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Calling on Xi and Trump to place human rights "at the heart" of their meeting's agenda, Amnesty's Secretary General Salil Shetty warned the world is heading "in a very dangerous direction."
"This meeting comes as both presidents are rolling back human rights protections, impacting millions of people in China, the US and across the globe," Shetty said.
"From refugees turned away at the U.S. border to human rights lawyers languishing in Chinese prisons, the consequences of their contempt for human rights are devastating," he added.
Amnesty hit out at Trump's "hateful xenophobic" travel ban that aims to stop people in several majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S., and the lifting of human rights conditions on the sale of fighter jets to Bahrain for potential use in the bombing of Yemeni civilians.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Friday urging Trump to keep up human rights pressure on Xi even while discussing strategic and economic issues.
"History teaches that when a government fears its own citizens and tramples daily on their fundamental human rights, it is unlikely to become a responsible global stakeholder, abide by its international commitments, or be trustworthy in trade agreements or efforts to tackle common challenges."Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed a litany of Beijing's rights abuses to lay at Xi's door.
"Torture, disappearances, imprisoning peaceful advocates, destroying religious communities, internet censorship – President Xi has plenty to answer for on these subjects," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said ahead of the presidential summit.
Major crackdown on lawyers
China launched a nationwide police operation targeting more than 300 rights lawyers in July 2015 that has seen six lawyers and rights activists sentenced and another eight held in secret locations with no access to a lawyer.
In the U.S., Jin Bianling, whose human rights lawyer husband Jiang Tianyong is currently detained in China, said she had written to President Trump about him ahead of their meeting.
"I wrote the fourth letter from the families of the July 2015 detainees to Trump," Jin told RFA.
"I called on Trump and Xi Jinping to discuss the release of the human rights lawyers detained in that crackdown, and all prisoners of conscience."
And the wife of jailed Guangzhou rights lawyer Tang Jingling, known by his nickname "China's Gandhi," said she had sent a similar letter.
"The [human rights] situation back in China is looking really bad right now," U.S.-based Wang Yanfang told RFA.
"But since I came to the U.S., I have met a number of ... senators and representatives in Congress who care enough to raise the cases of political prisoners, which gives their relatives so much hope," she said.
Peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party are routinely jailed on subversion or state security charges, or "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," HRW said.
"[In all cases] the legal proceedings have fallen far short of international standards," it said.
'Brutality and repression'
Meanwhile, internal disciplinary investigations have seen large numbers of officials locked up under Xi's anti-corruption campaign, where they have been subjected to "prolonged sleep deprivation, forced stress positions, deprivation of water and food, and in some cases severe beatings," the group said.
It cited the ongoing expulsion and "political re-education" of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns and the demolition of Buddhist teaching institution Larung Gar.
"No one should be fooled by a man and a government who preside through brutality and repression," Richardson said. "Xi’s record speaks for itself."
Amnesty International meanwhile cited a recent series of draconian "national security" laws that have legalised the crackdown on peaceful dissidents through the use of political charges and secret detentions.
According to Shetty, the laws are putting a "chokehold" on civil society.
"These are dark times for human rights in China," Shetty said. "The authorities are ... showing a total disregard for international human rights law."
Amnesty also hit out at Beijing for using its veto action at the U.N. to prevent sanctions being imposed on those responsible for mass atrocities in Syria, and at the U.S. for being "willing to shield Israel from scrutiny for its serious human rights violations."
"If two of the world’s most powerful leaders continue to side-line human rights it will have a devastating domino effect, placing established human rights protections in jeopardy and lead to further crises," Shetty said.
Protesters championing diverse rights causes including the jailed lawyers, petitioners for government redress, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibet and the Uyghurs clustered along Xi's motorcade route. Large numbers of flag-waving Xi supporters were also mobilized to drown out the protests.
The local newspaper Palm Beach Post quoted the city's sheriff’s office as saying five people on charges ranging from obstruction of a roadway to resisting arrest.
Li Huanjun, a human rights activist and petitioner against forced house demolitions in China who escaped to the United States in 2015, was protesting outside Xi's hotel in Palm Beach on Thursday and broke into tears during an interview with RFA's Mandarin Service, describing her plans to run in front of Xi's motorcade.
“If they (the Chinese authorities) didn’t rob our property, why would we come here to protest and why would we try to stop Xi Jinping’s motorcade?” asked a sobbing Li, whose house in Beijing was confiscated and demolished in 2011.
Among supporters mobilized by China and wearing red shirts and waving China'a red national flag to welcome Xi, a woman told RFA she turned out because "He is a good chairman. He is clean and has integrity.”
Asked about the plight of Li and other petitioners who told their stories in her present, the woman, who declined to give her name, also broke down in tears and said she was "very sympathetic.”
Asked to clarify that she supported Xi and the petitioners, she said: “Yes, they should tell this to him; let him know this.”
According to the Palm Beach Post, Li was not among those arrested, although her colleague was twice detained by authorities.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.