Xi′s US visit - Anything but human rights? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 24.09.2015
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Xi's US visit - Anything but human rights?

China's President Xi and his US counterpart Obama are set to discuss an array of issues during their meeting at the White House, including trade, cybersecurity and South China Sea disputes. But what about human rights?

Hundreds of demonstrators in the US city of Seattle recently protested China's worsening human rights record and growing crackdown on rights activists under President Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader, who kicked off a high-profile state visit to the US this week, is expected to arrive in Washington on Thursday to hold talks with US President Barack Obama at the White House, after meeting with US business leaders in the coastal seaport city.

And Xi is also likely to notice the protesters awaiting his arrival in the East Coast. Huge banners have been put up on the US capital's popular museum, Newseum, which is located between the White House and Capitol Hill.

Some of the slogans read: "Long Live Freedom, Long Live Democracy," "Chinese Government Should Respect Human Rights" and "Release Human Rights Defenders in China."

Since early July, authorities have targeted more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists in China as part of a nationwide crackdown, according to Amnesty International. The rights group says that at least 30 of them are still thought to be in detention.

Furthermore, China is planning a new law that would enable Beijing to police foreign non-governmental organizations operating in the country. Many say this might be China's biggest crackdown on human rights activists in decades.

USA Newseum in Washington Protestbanner Pressefreiheit China

Huge banners have been put up on Washington's popular Newseum

A miserable failure?

Despite the deteriorating situation, President Obama is unlikely to press his guest on human rights, say critics. "This is actually the right time to talk to China not only about trade issues, but also about civil liberties," said Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese human rights activist who has been living in exile in the US since 1997.

"President Obama is not raising human rights with China. Why? Because he is worried that such a step would offend the interests of the US business community," the activist told DW.

While there is an almost endless stream of issues to discuss between the two sides, trade, cybersecurity and South China Sea disputes are expected to top the list. However, the White House insists President Obama will confront disagreements head on, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice stressing that Obama will not shy away from raising human rights concerns, among other things.

Nevertheless, for Chris Smith, Chairman of the US Congressional Executive-Commission on China, these are mere words. "Obama has failed miserably. He's done nothing to advance the goals of human rights. He barely mentions it," Smith told DW, adding that Obama acted in a similar way when he met Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao.

"Here's the guy (Obama) that got the Nobel Peace Prize. He met with the man (Hu) that was holding a fellow Nobel Peace Prize-winner and there was not a mere mention of Liu Xiaobo."

Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and co-author of the manifesto "Charta 08" which called for reform and democracy in China, has been imprisoned since December 2009. In 2010, Liu received the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia.

US intelligentsia appeal for freedom

Even before Xi left for the US, more than 40 US intellectuals - among them authors like Paul Auster, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan - had written an open letter to the Chinese president demanding the release of Chinese writers who "are languishing in jail for the crime of expressing their opinions."

The authors highlighted four cases: that of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for nearly five years, as well as that of Uighur blogger Ilham Tothi who was sentenced to life in prison one year ago. And they also criticized that jailed investigative journalist and DW correspondent Gao Yu was not being offered proper medical care.

"The imprisonment of writers and journalists damages China's image abroad and undercuts its ambitions to be a strong and respected partner on the world stage," read the letter.

The authors urged Xi to release the writers and journalists and "to take immediate steps to defend and protect the rights of all Chinese citizens to communicate and access information freely."

Muzzling criticism

Issues such as the jailing of lawyers and authors, the oppression of Tibetans and Uighurs, and attacks on churches in Eastern China offer enough reasons for the US to address growing worries about human rights with the Chinese leadership.

But while the United States has expressed concerns, the White House has "failed to respond proportionately to the alarming deterioration of human rights," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the magazine Foreign Policy.

"It has been reluctant to visibly and consistently align itself with China's besieged activists, with the exceptions of eventually receiving the Dalai Lama and perfunctorily congratulating imprisoned critic Liu Xiaobo on his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize win," she added.

Other governments have similarly toned down their criticism. "This has been happening for more than ten years now," Chinese dissident Wei says. "And it's getting worse and worse."

Protesting against Chinese will

A couple of weeks ago, Chinese officials came to Washington to plan the trip. One of their demands was that the US ensure that protesters could neither be heard nor seen by President Xi. This is why Washington's Lafayette Park is off-limits for the general public these days.

However, through letters, banners and other forms of protest, civil society activists want to make sure that Xi notices the actions of those decrying the deteriorating state of human rights in China - even if he is unlikely to do so in his political discussions with the US leadership.