As Chinese President Xi Jinping gears up for his first state visit to the United States since assuming the presidency in 2013, calls are growing for U.S. and Chinese officials to make meaningful progress on human rights following a series of harsh crackdowns by his administration on critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Xi has presided over the detentions and imprisonment of numerous civil society leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, and NGO workers, and overseen one of the most repressive periods in the post-Mao era for ethnic and religious minorities," the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which translates and collates reports from groups inside China, said in a recent report on its website.
The group called on the Obama administration to "exert some real pressure" on the Chinese government to put an end to systematic rights abuses.
"Making China respect basic human rights and rule of law is critical to ensuring that China honors any commitments it might make to cooperate on issues of climate change, cyber-security, regional security or currency manipulation," the statement said.
It hit out at previous meetings between the two presidents as lacking substantive pressure and resulting in "no improvements."
It said Xi stands to gain far more in terms of political legitimacy back home from the symbolic trappings of a state visit than does Washington.
"The visit ... will send the wrong signals to China’s embattled human rights communities and persecuted ethnic and religious groups [who] have paid a heavy toll under Xi, and who are ... in urgent need of a strong show of moral support," CHRD said, citing dozens of recent interviews with Chinese rights activists and members of the country's embattled legal profession, which has been targeted in a nationwide police operation since July 9.
One lawyer told the group: "If the White House lays out the red carpet for President Xi, it sends a clear message to China’s human rights activists that our journey will only become increasingly more arduous."
The activists cited a 2013 crackdown on anti-corruption activists, continued repressive policies against Tibetans, the treatment of the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs as terrorists and ongoing restrictions on Islamic activities, the detention of activists who commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and those who showed public support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
The targeting of NGOs and charities, a crackdown on overseas funding, the detention of the five feminists and the ongoing detention of rights lawyers should also be addressed at any Xi-Obama meeting, they said.
There is also growing concern over the targeting of official and unofficial Christian churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang, where the authorities are forcibly demolishing visible crosses from places of worship and imposing further religious and financial controls.
"Under Xi Jinping’s rule, torture remains endemic in Chinese detention centers and prisons," CHRD said, adding that law enforcement agencies still torture with impunity in spite of rulings banning evidence acquired under duress.
It called for the release of all political prisoners, lawyers and rights activists detained by Xi's administration.
Rights situation has grown worse
New York-based Hu Ping, editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, agreed with the CHRD report.
"In the two or more years of the Xi Jinping administration, the human rights situation in China has gotten even worse," Hu said. "They are now detaining people now for things that they would never have detained them for in the past."
"They are also detaining people now who would never have been detained before, and making links between things that they never would have seen as linked before."
He said Xi's forthcoming trip to the U.S. should be used by Washington to put pressure on Beijing for the release of detained rights lawyer Wang Yu and more than a dozen other lawyers, law firm staff and rights activists held in the recent crackdown on lawyers.
"If things go well, it is likely that certain people will be released on a selective basis after Xi's visit to the U.S.," Hu said. "A lot of these lawyers and activists have been held for a long time but have never been sentenced."
"This shows that there is likely a difference of opinion among the highest echelons of party leadership about what should be done about these people," he said.
But he added: "The Chinese government will likely release them on medical parole. They'll never admit they did it in response to a U.S. demand."
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said he doesn't believe that Beijing will release anyone.
"I don't think the Chinese Communist Party is going to set these people free," Wu said. "Xi Jinping will lose face if he makes a concession [like that]."
"He has engaged in a show of strength with the [war anniversary] military parade, and he is emphasizing that bilateral ties between China and the U.S. are now between two superpowers," he said.
"On the surface, there's no confrontation, but the crux of the matter is that each side has their own core interests," Wu said. "Human rights aren't up for discussion, because they're a domestic affair."
A reckoning of its own
Sophie Richardson, China director for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said China's insistence that Japan face up to war-time atrocities should be balanced with a reckoning of its own, instead of whipping up nationalism with Thursday's military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender.
"Goose-stepping past the ghosts of Tiananmen does nothing to bolster Beijing’s demands for accountability for other countries," Richardson wrote in a recent blog post.
"However, freeing the judiciary and press, tolerating citizens’ criticism, and learning to acknowledge its own mistakes implicit in all these disasters would."
Yaxue Cao, who edits the ChinaChange.org human rights website, said the political leverage to force Beijing to act on human rights simply isn't there, in spite of last month's visit to China by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein.
Saperstein visited Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Hong Kong, and "noted positive developments" in meetings with officials, while calling for an end to oppressive religious policies targeting Christians, Tibetans and Muslim Uyghurs.
According to the State Department's website, Saperstein "conveyed the U.S. government’s deep concern over the recent detentions of many human rights defenders and religious leaders."
"His statement was a largely symbolic one, and it won't have the slightest effect," Cao told RFA in a recent interview. "China has already said that they don't want to be given lists of names, and that they won't even discuss this."
"Beijing has carried out so many [human rights violations], and the U.S. government hasn't taken any action," she said. "Every year we have the human rights dialogues, but there is no progress of any kind."
"Would you be afraid, if you were in China's shoes? They don't care a bit."
Reported by Yang Jiadai and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.