U.S. diplomats will discuss recent disappearances and detentions of Chinese dissidents during human rights talks in Beijing next week, the U.S. State Department said.
The two-day U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue will also focus on the rule of law, freedom of religion and expression, and labor and minority rights, the department said in a statement issued Friday in Beijing.
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner will head the U.S. side for what is expected to be "candid and in-depth" discussions, the statement said.
The talks come during a major crackdown by Chinese authorities on the embattled dissident community in which dozens of well-known lawyers and activists have vanished, been interrogated or detained for alleged subversion.
The crackdown was apparently sparked by government fears of a Middle East-style protest movement, although anonymous calls on the Internet for demonstrations in China have produced no clear response. Chinese ruling Communist Party seized power in a 1949 revolution and brooks no challenges to its authority.
Human rights groups say the crackdown is on a scale not seen in many years, with security forces employing arbitrary tactics to detain people in their homes in defiance of the law.
China has responded by accusing those detained, including internationally known artist Ai Weiwei, of seeking to use the law as cover for attacks on the ruling party.
Rights activists have long debated the value of such international dialogues on human rights, saying they play to Beijing's strategy to remove such issues from more general public political and economic discussions.
While they have succeeded in the past in obtaining insights about specific cases, the Chinese side has in recent years grown increasingly unwilling to share such information, said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based research manager for the U.S. human rights group Dui Hua Foundation.
"This time around, with the crackdown on, it will only add to the pressure for something substantial to come out of it," Rosenzweig said.
China's Foreign Ministry said the head of its Department of International Organizations and Conferences would lead the Chinese side in the talks on "issues of common concern."
China regards foreign accusations of restrictions on political, religious, and civil rights as attacks on the party's authority, and the ministry said differences could be addressed only "on the basis of equality and mutual respect."
"We oppose any country using the issue of human rights to interfere in China's internal affairs," it said in a statement.
Recent weeks have also seen worshippers in China's underground Protestant churches come under pressure. Leaders of Beijing's Shouwang church have vowed to worship in outdoor public spaces after being evicted from their previous rented space and prevented from moving into a sanctuary purchased with church funds.
During an initial attempt last week, church leaders were placed under house arrest and nearly 50 members were detained. The leaders appear willing to risk a confrontation with a new call to gather outdoors for Easter services on Sunday.
The Communist Party requires Christians to worship in state-controlled churches, although millions are believed to worship in unregistered "house" churches. The expansion and growing influence of such congregations have unsettled China's rulers, ever suspicious of any independent groups that could challenge their authority.
Ai, a provocative artist and frequent government critic, is the highest-profile figure rounded up so far in the crackdown. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman, lauded Ai for his compassion and reform calls in a brief article posted Thursday on the website of Time magazine.
"Ai Weiwei is the kind of visionary any nation should be proud to count among its creative class," Huntsman wrote. "It is very sad that the Chinese government has seen a need to silence one of its most innovative and illustrious citizens."