WASHINGTON—As U.S. President Obama gears up for his first state visit to China, the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress has stepped up pressure on Beijing over its treatment of activists in the wake of last year’s Sichuan earthquake.
The House passed a motion at the weekend in support of two Chinese activists put on trial after investigating whether shoddy construction led to children’s deaths in last year’s devastating earthquake, which killed 88,000 people.
The Obama administration, which recently imposed trade tariffs on imports of Chinese goods, has been seen as taking a softer line on Beijing’s human rights record ahead of the presidential trip.
Obama notably did not meet the visiting exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as his predecessor did.
The House approved a resolution expressing “support” for activists Huang Qi and Tan Zuoren, and it called on Beijing to guarantee their rights to free speech and fair trials.
Huang posted on his Web site parents’ demands for an investigation into construction standards at Chinese schools, in which thousands of children were crushed to death during the devastating May 12, 2008 earthquake.
He spent nearly 14 months in detention before going on trial behind closed doors in August. Tan, a writer, led calls for an independent probe into school construction.
Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, cited a huge amount of political support in Congress for democracy and human rights in China.
“This is a way of getting that back onto the table as a subject for open debate,” he said.
He said the move came in response to an apparently tougher line on civil rights activists and political opposition in Beijing.
“I have a feeling that the Hu Jintao administration is getting more rigid in its dealings with dissidents,” Xia said.
“Recently in China we have seen a lot more new dissidents being detained, and there were many controls on them both before and after the 60th anniversary celebrations [on Oct. 1].”
China celebrated the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1, with great fanfare and under tight security following a recent wave of deadly ethnic unrest.
U.S.-based human rights activist Liu Nianchun said the motion shows a respect for universal values in American public opinion.
“The U.S. House of Representatives is an indicator of public opinion,” he said.
“Actually people in the United States think that there hasn’t been much progress on human rights in China, that the situation is getting worse and worse.”
“The House is expressing the opinion of the American people on the eve of Obama’s visit, saying that they do care about human rights,” Liu said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.