WASHINGTON — Even before Chinese President Hu Jintao's plane landed outside Washington on Tuesday for his state visit, the human rights protesters were gearing up.
China's jailing of political dissenters and media censorship have long been a concern for civil rights advocates and the U.S. government.
When Hu last visited the White House, in 2006 to meet with President George W. Bush, a woman who represented the Falun Gong movement — which is banned in China — interrupted their remarks. That was during an "official" visit, less prestigious than a "state" visit.
Now, as President Barack Obama welcomes Hu for China's first state visit to the United States since 1997, complete with an arrival ceremony and a posh state White House dinner Wednesday, a convergence of forces is giving new energy to the critics' push:
- The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia last fall to jailed democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.
Obama, who met last week with human rights activists in preparation for his discussions with Hu, is likely to speak of his concerns on two fronts: individual cases such as Liu's and broader issues such as building freer legal and governance systems. Obama said last year that Liu "should be released as soon as possible."
However, with China holding so much sway over major issues such as U.S. debt, the global economy and North Korea's nuclear threat, the United States has little leverage to enforce its demands on the Asian power.
No major human rights concessions are expected to be announced during Hu's visit. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that "we will continue to have difficult conversations, but necessary conversations" with China about human rights, adding, "This is a long road."
Still, protesters who represented Chinese, Taiwanese, Tibetans and Uighurs made final arrangements Tuesday to fill Lafayette park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, while Hu huddles Wednesday with Obama.
Clothilde Le Coz, the Washington director of the organization Reporters Without Borders, who'll speak at the rally, said freeing Liu would be its focus and that organizers hoped that word of the campaign would filter through China's wall of censorship.
Chinese citizens have ways of getting around Internet censors, she said, adding, "We have great hopes that it will reach students, and maybe others, in China."
Obama himself is expected to raise human rights concerns with Hu in private meetings. The issue also is likely to come up in a joint news conference Wednesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled a more robust stance on the issue in a speech last Friday, declaring that "America will continue to speak out and to press China" on censorship, the imprisonment of activists, limits on religious freedom and the jailing of lawyers and legal advocates who challenge the government.
Clinton also foreshadowed what Obama is expected to tell Hu: that while dissent can be destabilizing, it also can improve economic innovation and the health and well-being of China's population.
Those arguments, however, are unlikely to carry much weight with Hu and his delegation.
China's leaders must manage a country of 1.3 billion people, and "it's a little hard to tell them what to do," said China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, who served on the National Security Council staff under President Bill Clinton. The United States "has the greatest influence on this by being an example, by practicing what we preach," he said.
The human rights issue nonetheless could embarrass Hu, who by all accounts is eager to improve China's image in the United States.
The Obama administration hasn't always seemed to make human rights dialogue with Beijing a priority. On a trip to Asia soon after she took office, Clinton said she'd raise the issue with the Chinese, "but we pretty much know what they're going to say."
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