The relatives of China's detained human rights lawyers have written to U.S. President Donald Trump calling on him to raise Beijing's human rights record during his forthcoming summit with President Xi Jinping in Florida on Thursday.
"We now know that they have been tortured, and we worry about whether they will live or die," the relatives said of their loved ones. "We want to know how they are looking, and why they haven't been allowed to meet with a lawyer for a year and eight months now."
"We have never given up trying to find out the whereabouts of our loved ones, nor trying to help them," the letter, addressed to President Trump at the White House, said.
"We have been detained several times ... and beaten up by police because of our activities," it said. "We have sent hundreds of letters and paid hundreds of visits, but it has all been to no avail."
"We are writing to you, Mr. President, ... because we know that under the present reality, there is no hope of a fair trial."
Sixteen out of more than 300 human rights lawyers, activists, and law firm employees detained since July 2015 are still facing trial, while two have already been handed harsh sentences.
Request for demands
Jin Bianling, the U.S.-based wife of detained rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, said she had penned the letter, dated March 31, on behalf of all of the relatives of lawyers detained across China in a nationwide police operation since July 2015.
"This week, Trump will meet with Xi Jinping, so we are hoping that Trump can make some demands on China, such as releasing all of the innocent rights lawyers and other citizens detained in the July 2015 crackdown," she said.
Jin said many of the relatives of the detained lawyers are themselves in dire straits as a direct result of the crackdown.
"Their children have been unable to get schooling, and there is no way they can live normal lives," she said. "They are frequently forced to move house, and they have been threatened, followed, and held under house arrest."
"The human rights situation in China right now is extremely dire ... and so we call on Trump for help as a last resort," Jin said.
Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in March 2013, his administration has launched an ongoing campaign against peaceful dissent, freedoms of expression and religion, and the rule of law, the New York-based Human Rights Group said in a recent report.
In Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) called on Trump not to overlook the estimated 1,400 Chinese political prisoners during talks.
"As President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi to Florida, we cannot forget the men and women who languish unjustly in prison, the family members who do not know the fate of their loved ones, and the professionals who have disappeared for simply doing their job," CECC Chair Marco Rubio said in a statement.
"These people are not statistics, they are booksellers and pastors, writers and Nobel Laureates, lawyers and rights defenders," he said. "It is unacceptable for President Xi to get a pass on human rights."
He said Trump should press for the unconditional release of jailed dissidents on the basis that it chimes in with the U.S. national interest in the rule of law and individual freedoms.
"The President has the historic opportunity to change the failed policy assumptions of the past, increased trade and prosperity have not brought political liberalization to China," Rubio said.
'Not a major topic'
Pan Lu, a founder member of the China Human Rights Observer group, said he expects North Korea's nuclear program to take precedence over human rights.
"Human rights aren't a major topic at these talks, because ... solving the North Korea problem will help liberate 20 million North Koreans from long-term oppression," Pan said.
"China and the U.S. ... want to avoid major upheavals and stop the situation even turning into all-out war," he said.
U.S. officials have already indicated that North Korea’s nuclear program and U.S.-China trade relations will top the agenda in talks at Trump's lavish Mar-a-lago resort in Florida.
"Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you," Trump told the Financial Times in an interview published online Sunday.
Trump has campaigned against what he describes as unfair Chinese trade policies, as well as raising hackles in Beijing by taking a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, in violation of China's preferred "One China" policy.
But Trump also appeared hopeful of some kind of bargain with Xi.
"I have great respect for him. I have great respect for China," Trump told the FT. "I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries, and I hope so."
Clashes, conflict likely
U.S.-based Chinese studies expert Xie Xuanjun said talks later this week between Xi and Trump are more likely to result in conflict than constructive dialogue, particularly over rising tensions in the Korean peninsula.
"China has no bargaining chips left to play with the U.S., because North Korea won't do as it says," Xie said, adding that Sino-U.S. ties are now at their coolest level in several years.
"There are some similarities between the personalities of Xi Jinping and Trump," he said. "They both want to play the strongman, so it's likely we'll see some clashes at this meeting."
Reported by Yang Fan and Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.