The U.S. attorney general Tuesday urged Beijing to release Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and live up to its human rights obligations, a day before he was scheduled to meet with top law enforcement officials in China.
Eric Holder said he is unlikely to bring up the jailed dissident during his meetings in Beijing that will focus on piracy and counterfeiting issues.
President Barack Obama, who was awarded the peace prize himself a year ago, called for Liu's release when the Nobel was announced Oct. 8.
Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison term for subversion, was honored for campaigning for human rights and democratic reforms in China for more than two decades. Beijing furiously accused the Nobel organizers of recognizing a criminal and has kept his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest since the announcement.
"It is our feeling that the Nobel prize he received was well deserved. We think he should be released from detention, that China should live up to its international human rights obligations," Holder told reporters in the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong after he gave a speech at a conference about intellectual property theft.
"I think the case of Liu Xiaobo is an unfortunate one given his status and recognition by the Nobel committee," he said, but adding, "I am not at all certain that that will be something that will come up during the conversations I will have in Beijing."
Since Holder's purview is only to enforce American law, it would be unusual for him to criticize China's detention of dissidents directly to officials in Beijing.
Among the officials Holder is scheduled to meet in Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday are the foreign minister, the justice minister, the public security minister and the country's top prosecutor.
Holder's comments came as the American ambassador to China praised a top leader's calls for greater political reform and rejected a suggestion that the U.S. should engage less with Beijing because it represses dissidents and censors information.
The U.S. walks a line in its diplomacy with China, using both praise and criticism to encourage Beijing to open up its political system while maintaining close trade ties that are vital to the American economy.
Ambassador Jon Huntsman said during a town hall meeting broadcast live online Tuesday that he was heartened by a recent speech by Premier Wen Jiabao in which he spoke positively about expanding democratic rights and freedom of speech.
"There's a dynamic of change that is occurring here," Huntsman said in response to a question about whether U.S. engagement with China should be scaled back because of Beijing's slow pace of political reform, which drew renewed attention with Liu's Nobel win.
Huntsman said that he has observed a freer flow of information in China than in the past, as well as positive signals from leaders such as Wen.
"It's hard to know exactly where it goes or what it means to democracy as defined by Americans," Huntsman said. "But in terms of the level of mobility, the flexibility, having a premier come out recently and talk about freedom and democracy in terms that I've never heard before ... something is happening here that is quite interesting."
During a speech in August, Wen called for improved rule of law and political reforms, saying that without it, China could lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.
It remains unclear whether such talk could lead to any concrete change in the authoritarian government's actions.
The Chinese constitution guarantees free speech, but activists who publicly question the Communist Party's monopoly on power are routinely harassed and jailed.