WASHINGTON (AP) — Relatives of Chinese dissidents met Wednesday with Secretary of State John Kerry as the Obama administration sought to demonstrate it won't gloss over human rights during this week's state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But the message was in danger of backfiring after the wife of one prominent dissident — Gao Zhisheng, who says he was tortured with an electric baton when he was held in detention and endured years of solitary confinement — refused the invitation.
"They haven't talked to us in five years, for all the time we've been here, so why should we attend a meeting now?" Geng He told The Associated Press from her home in Cupertino, Calif. Gao himself vows to never leave China despite the hardships and having to live apart from his family.
The United States has warned that the toughest crackdown in years on Chinese activists threatens to cloud the high-profile visit by Xi, who arrives in Washington on Thursday and will meet with President Barack Obama.
Yet the issue of human rights is unlikely to dominate the agenda at their Oval Office meeting Friday, which is followed by a state dinner.
As China emerges as an economic and military rival that Washington both competes and cooperates with, other issues tend to get top billing at the summit table. Prime U.S. concerns are cybercrime, China's island-building in the disputed South China Sea and building momentum for a global deal to combat climate change.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that human rights would get attention.
"We believe that people should have the right to speak freely. We believe that journalists and NGOs (nongovernment organizations) should be able to operate freely, and we are going to be very clear about that not just with China but with any country in the world," Rhodes said.
Foreign governments have, for the most part, become less willing to speak out over rights abuses as China's economic heft has grown. But in a move that will annoy Beijing, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met for more than one hour Wednesday with six U.S.-based civil society activists and relatives of Chinese dissidents, according to a State Department official.
Kerry joined the meeting and assured the participants that both he and the president would raise human rights in their meetings with the Chinese, and continue to press for the release of prisoners and reform of laws that are inconsistent with China's international human rights obligations, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
But human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng opposed his wife Geng taking part. Geng on Tuesday posted on her Twitter account a letter from her husband telling her that such a meeting would be futile while U.S. politicians rub shoulders with the head of China's ruling Communist Party.
Gao detailed in an AP interview, his first in five years, the torture and other mistreatment he faced before his release in August 2014. At the time of his release he was barely able to speak or walk and still lives under near-constant guard.
Geng has little hope her husband's case will be raised in the meetings this week.
"I think talk about trade, economic relations cannot be separated from human rights. They should put human rights at the front of the conversation, but I don't think they are willing to do that," Geng said.
Among those who did attend Wednesday were Lu Jun, a prominent social campaigner; Zhang Huixin, the daughter of a jailed pastor; and Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a well-known Uighur minority scholar who was convicted last year of inciting separatism and sentenced to life in prison.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith, an arch critic of Beijing, said the meeting needed to be followed up with tougher action by Obama.
"I understand Gao Zhisheng's anger. The administration has mentioned his case, but has not made China pay a price for the torture and horrors he and his family have experienced," Smith said.
Since taking the presidency in 2013 and becoming the most powerful Chinese leader in three decades, Xi has cracked down on encroachment of what he views as Western-style freedoms in China's increasingly prosperous and connected society. His administration has tightened controls on religious minorities, including a government campaign to remove crosses and demolish Christian churches in an eastern province — a move that has drawn condemnation on Capitol Hill.
The Obama administration is under pressure from Congress and an array of rights activists to speak out. This summer, Chinese authorities rounded up more than 250 human rights lawyers and associates. According to Human Rights Watch, 22 are still held.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said he and several other lawmakers will host Chinese activists and former political prisoners Friday to pay tribute to them and send a message to both the Chinese and U.S. governments that human rights matter to the American people.
But the topic shapes the relationship less than it did a quarter-century ago. When China cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds, it had direct and negative consequences as the U.S. scaled down ties.
Associated Press video journalist Aritz Parra and writers Didi Tang and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.