Chinese President Xi Jinping headed to the United States on Tuesday at the start of a state visit, amid calls for the release of political prisoners and concerns over cybersecurity.
Xi will hold talks with President Barack Obama later this week, before making an appearance at the United Nations' 70th anniversary summit in New York at the end of the month, official Chinese media reported.
His trip comes amid growing calls on Beijing to improve its human rights record and to release prisoners of conscience, including an open letter to Xi from 40 overseas-based writers and authors on the eve of his trip.
"We urge you to release the Chinese writers and journalists who are languishing in jail for the crime of expressing their opinions," the letter, signed by writers including Neil Gaiman and Xiaolu Guo and China expert Andrew Nathan, said.
It cited the cases of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been held incommunicado at the couple's home without being accused of any crime, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who spoke out about the plight of the mostly Muslim Uyghur group, and veteran journalist Gao Yu, 71, whose requests for medical parole based on ill-health have been repeatedly denied.
"We have documented cases of at least 47 writers and journalists currently imprisoned in China," the letter said, adding that the average sentence for a writer is eight years in prison.
It added: "The imprisonment of writers and journalists damages China’s image abroad and undercuts its ambition to be a strong and respected partner on the world stage."
Meanwhile, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which collates reports from rights groups inside China, launched an online petition calling for the release of prominent women activists, including Gao, detained rights lawyer Wang Yu and women's rights activist Su Changlan.
The petition calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and U.N. Women to press the Chinese government to free all detained women rights defenders, and to drop all criminal charges against the five feminists detained ahead of International Women's Day, before Xi speaks at the U.N. Summit.
China as key player
But the ruling Chinese Communist Party's tightly controlled state media on Tuesday brushed aside criticisms of the government's record on human rights, saying the rest of the world should treat Beijing as an equal.
"China's political stability cannot be challenged," the Global Times newspaper, sister paper of party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in an editorial on Tuesday.
"The contest between Beijing and Washington in political values and institutions reached a climax following the 1989 Tiananmen incident," it said, claiming that the U.S. had shifted the focus of its China policy to "economic benefits" in the mid-1990s.
The paper said the U.S., "prepossessed with the notion of its superiority in political system and values, and the mission to expand them, is challenging Beijing's political stability, directly and indirectly," and had evoked "strategic distrust" from China.
Chongqing-based political commentator Zhang Qi said Beijing's main aim from Xi's trip is to establish China as a key player on the the world stage, and to project an image of the leader of a major world power.
"We can see that the media inside China is focusing in particular on Xi's status as a leader," Zhang said. "The Chinese Communist Party wants to be a member of the international community, and to project the image of a mature and civilized country."
"They're not dreaming a constitutional dream; they're dreaming an imperialistic one," he added, in a reference to a slogan of Xi's presidency, "the Chinese dream."
According to political commentator Liang Jing, the image Xi projects while he is overseas is aimed far more at a domestic audience than an international one, however.
"Xi isn't even halfway through his 10-year term, but this summer was the biggest turning point we have seen yet for his administration," Liang said in a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Cantonese Service.
"A lot of people, both in China and overseas, have seen their confidence in Xi start to waver."
He said Xi's visit comes at a time of political uncertainty for both sides, including forthcoming presidential elections in the U.S.
"But the uncertainty caused by the political drama in China is far greater," Liang said. "A lot of people now recognize that there is a far greater likelihood of unpredictable action on Xi's part than they had thought."
"As Xi Jinping sees even greater challenges to his domestic power, this will create additional risk in the bilateral relationship," he said.
Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang agreed, adding that a slowing Chinese economy and the recent stockmarket crash have taken some of the luster off Xi's international image.
"A lot of industries in China are struggling, and workers are going to lose their jobs," Sun said. "He will obviously be hoping for some trade opportunities from the U.S. and for some economic support."
"A lot of businesspeople are going with him on this trip."
Xi's entourage will include top executives from e-commerce giant Alibaba, computer-maker Lenovo, Internet service providers Baidu and Tencent, and appliance maker Haier.
Baidu's inclusion in the group comes after allegations that the company unwittingly took part in a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on anti-censorship site GreatFire.org and coding site GitHub earlier this year.
In April, researchers led by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said China has added a powerful new weapon in its battle to control what its users see online, adding the "Great Cannon" to its existing arsenal of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall.
According to the report, the attack on GitHub and GreatFire.org is the first known usage of the Great Cannon.
The Great Cannon works by silently programming the browsers of Baidu visitors outside China to create a massive DDoS attack, the report said, drawing parallels with the U.S. National Security Agency's "Quantum" program, first revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
GreatFire.org has said it is "confident" that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) was responsible for both DDoS attacks.
U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice said cyberattacks launched from China are a national security concern that put "enormous strain on the bilateral relationship."
"Cyber-enabled espionage that targets personal and corporate information for the economic gain of businesses undermines our long-term economic cooperation and it needs to stop," Rice said.
But Xi told the Wall Street Journal that China's government does not engage in the theft of commercial secrets and does not support Chinese companies that do so.
Rice said Obama would be direct with Xi on concerns over security online and in the South China Sea, as well as over human rights at forthcoming talks.
According to veteran political affairs commentator Antonio Chiang, U.S. and Chinese officials have already prepared a cyber non-aggression pact to be inked by the presidents during the visit.
"Actually everyone thinks this is about diplomatic and strategic issues, but it's ultimately going to be about the banks and finance," Chiang told RFA in a recent interview.
"The Americans know that it'll be very hard to get any agreement on diplomatic and military issues, but it also has a lot of complaints and demands from the commercial sector and about financial matters," he said.
"Actually this agreement affects both of their economic interests more, and that can be negotiated."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.