WASHINGTON While China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, enjoyed center stage in Washington on Tuesday, the wife of a jailed Chinese rights lawyer and other opponents of Beijing's grip on dissent said the Obama administration should increase pressure on China.
The White House has said it always presses human rights concerns in talks with Chinese leaders.
"On critical issues like human rights, we will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people," President Barack Obama said during Xi's visit to the White House.
But in a hearing before a congressional panel and protests outside the White House, opponents of China's one-party government said they feared that international worries about jailed dissidents and stifled speech in China were being muffled by economic interests and geopolitics.
"I had thought up to now that the Obama administration was strongly acting on my husband's behalf. But I am saddened and surprised it has appeared to downplay China human rights concerns before this visit," said Geng He, the wife of Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese rights lawyer whose secretive imprisonment has drawn criticism from the U.N. human rights body.
Geng told a congressional panel hearing that her request to see Vice President Joe Biden to discuss her husband's case had not received a reply.
"Such self-censorship by the United States gives license to the Chinese government to act with impunity," she said in remarks prepared for the hearing of the Congressional Executive Commission on China.
Outside the White House, about 200 protesters decried China's controls in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, its ban on the Falun Gong spiritual sect, and its rules banning most urban families from having more than one child. They also demonstrated against what they said were China's militaristic policies toward Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
The demonstrations are unlikely to upset Xi's trip to the United States. But they underscored the challenges facing the Obama administration in striking the right tone in taking up human rights with Beijing, which has become increasingly impatient with public criticism from Washington.
'STAND UP FOR HUMAN RIGHTS'
"We just want Obama to take action and stand up for human rights," said Tenzin Lahdon, a member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, among pro-Tibet groups that draped a massive banner on Monday over a Washington bridge that read, "Xi Jinping Tibet will be free."
"The situation is getting worse in Tibet," she said.
Xi, 58, is almost sure to succeed Hu Jintao as head of China's Communist Party at a congress in October, and then as state president at a parliament session in March next year.
His trip to the United States is a rite of passage that will burnish his claim to be ready to lead China, and so Beijing has been particularly eager to avoid confrontation during the trip.
Xi held to that careful script in addressing the potentially prickly issue of human rights. Beijing is ready to hold a "candid and constructive" dialogue with Washington about the issue as long as there is "mutual respect," Xi said at a lunch at the State Department.
But Chinese authorities have indicated they will keep a heavy grip on critics of Communist Party rule. On Friday, a court sentenced a dissident, Zhu Yufu, to seven years in jail, in large part for a poem he wrote that was deemed subversive.
"I don't have any personal hopes for Xi. Politically, the leaders all represent entrenched interests that are hostile to political reform," said Yu Jie, a Chinese writer and Christian activist who joined the protests outside the White House.
Yu left Beijing for the United States in January after what he said was over a year of constant harassment and house arrest, including a beating that left him seriously injured.
"I wanted to send a signal that there are still many prisoners in China who have been jailed purely for expressing their views," he said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)