Two prominent Chinese rights lawyers said security officials blocked them Saturday morning from flying to the United States for meetings with congressmen, judges and scholars.
Pressure on Chinese activists has increased in the weeks since imprisoned author Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu's wife has been under house arrest since he won the award, and several other activists and lawyers have reported being threatened, harassed or not being allowed to leave their homes.
Also, more than 200 Chinese Christians have said they were stopped from leaving China to attend a religious conference in South Africa.
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong said officials at Shanghai's main airport told him after they turned him away at the passport checkpoint Saturday that if he left China he could endanger state security.
Lawyer Li Subin said he was blocked at the main Beijing airport.
The U.S.-based ChinaAid Association said it regularly invites Chinese lawyers and others to visit the United States and meet with officials. Jiang and Li were to observe the U.S. midterm elections and meet with congressmen, U.S. district court judges and legal scholars during a two-week trip.
"We are very disappointed for the action the Chinese government has taken," said ChinaAid head Bob Fu, a former Communist Party researcher in Beijing. "These lawyers are genuinely advancing rule of law in China."
A border official at the Beijing airport had no comment, and the border officials at the Shanghai airport did not pick up the phone Saturday.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged any recent pressure against activists and have angrily denounced the Nobel award to Liu as inappropriate and an interference in China's internal affairs.
The other two delegates for the U.S. visit, lawyer Li Baiguang and a democracy activist who writes under the name Ran Liang, apparently were able to leave China, Fu said. Li Baiguang was on the same flight as Li Subin, and airport officials told Li Subin his colleague had already checked in and that no one else had been blocked from traveling.
The delegation was scheduled to be in Texas on election day, which is Tuesday. They plan stops at the towns of College Station and Midland and at Baylor University before heading to Washington, D.C., later in the week, according to ChinaAid.
Fu said this was the fifth such Chinese delegation his group had organized this year and that delegates being blocked from traveling was unusual.
"In the past two years, usually the reason someone can't come is the U.S. Embassy refused a visa," he said.
That was the case this time with rights lawyer Yang Huiwen, who was invited to join the latest delegation but was unable to get a visa. "The embassy said he didn't have sufficient income," Fu said.
China has blocked only one other invited delegate this year, telling lawyer Zhang Kai this summer that his visit to the United States would pose a threat to national security, Fu said.
Jiang, the lawyer, said this is the second time he has ever been stopped from flying. The first time was in May when he tried to fly from Beijing to Hong Kong.
"I'm not sure how long this kind of thing will last," he said.