Activists stepped up calls for Chinese President Xi Jinping to end an ongoing crackdown on rights activists back home as he defended his government's tight controls on the Internet on Thursday.
Xi, who traveled from Washington state to Washington, D.C. on Thursday ahead of talks with Obama and a state dinner at the White House on Friday, has been greeted by protesters at every stop of his state visit to the United States this week.
Activists have hit out at the continued detention of prisoners of conscience, an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers, mistreatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs and continued harassment of non-governmental and civic organizations.
According to U.S.-based veteran dissident Yang Jianli, a raft of new laws aimed at bolstering "national security" is putting increasing pressure on activists and non-government groups.
"They will probably run into a lot of trouble when trying to carry out their work," Yang told RFA. "They could even be styled as carrying out overseas sabotage operations or even espionage under national security laws and regulations."
"This is going to put a huge obstacle in the way of social progress and civil society in China."
Jailed for 'rumor mongering'
Many activists and lawyers currently in detention or under police surveillance in China have been detained under laws governing national security or online "rumor-mongering."
But in an apparent reference to criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's tight censorship of what the country's 668 million netizens can see or write online, Xi told a meeting with top U.S. tech leaders including Apple's Tim Cook and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, that Internet policy should be "aligned with national realities."
The U.S. has repeatedly hit out at China's censorship of news and social media sites, as well the government's demands that its Internet service providers hand over huge swathes of data on their users.
But Xi said Beijing's focus is on online security instead.
"A secure, stable and prosperous cyberspace is of great significance to the world," the Seattle Times quoted him as saying.
As Xi headed to the U.S. capital, lawyers for five feminist activists detained for planning an anti-sexual harassment campaign ahead of Internet Women's Day this year have penned an open letter to the United Nations about Beijing's ongoing persecution of the women.
Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, and Zheng Churan were released "on bail" in April after being detained on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" on March 6, two days ahead of International Women's Day.
The five women, whose detention prompted an international outcry, are still officially regarded as criminal suspects, and are now calling for all charges against them to be dropped unconditionally.
"Under current laws, the actions of these five feminists did not in any way constitute a crime," Wei's lawyer Ge Wenxiu told RFA on Thursday. "We have complained many times to the relevant departments, including the Beijing municipal prosecutor, asking them to oversee the case and to correct the situation."
"But they have ignored us from start to finish."
Wei cited concerns over the impact of the ordeal on Li Tingting in particular, who is a frequent target of police harassment.
"We are all very angry about this, so we are writing a letter to U.N. Women ahead of the summit on gender equality and women's empowerment [at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 27]," he said.
"We want international women's groups to add their voices to the calls for justice."
Wu's lawyer Liu Shuqing said the women have done nothing but work for gender equality.
"This case should be totally dropped," Liu said. "This isn't against the law in any country. It's not even a sensitive topic."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also called on the Chinese government to drop charges against the five feminists, and on the U.N. to ensure that Chinese women's voices are heard at the gender equality summit marking two decades since Beijing hosted the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.
"China’s participation at the 20th anniversary event should not be limited to the repressive government but should include the brave Chinese women fighting for change," HRW women's rights director Liesl Gerntholtz said in a statement on the group's website.
"U.N. Women should ensure that the voice of an independent woman activist from China is heard on this important occasion," she said.
China has made modest gains with respect to women’s rights since 1995, but has failed to make much progress against some of the most fundamental human rights abuses against women and girls, and has often made them worse, HRW said.
Meanwhile, Lu Jun, who heads the anti-discrimination group Beijing Yirenping and who is in the U.S., said non-government groups told U.S. officials in a recent meeting that they finding it harder and harder to operate since Xi took the presidency in March 2013.
"Everyone raised various issues in the meeting, and we hope that they will be brought to China's attention, particularly at the meeting between Xi and Obama," Lu said, citing the detention of the feminist five and of Yirenping staff in recent months.
Zhang Huixin, daughter of jailed Nanle county Protestant pastor Zhang Shaojie, said she had also met with State Department officials on Wednesday.
"I told them about religious freedom in China, and the religious persecution, of which my father's case is a prime example," Zhang said. "Since then a lot of other pastors have been detained or disappeared, and we have had the cross demolition program in Zhejiang."
"They are very concerned and worried about these matters, and they said they would consider whether to bring them up with Xi Jinping ... during meetings and during the evening banquet," she said.
Reported by Lin Jing, Ho Shan and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.