BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States got few answers to questions about detained activists during its annual rights dialogue with China, and believes the situation in the country continues to deteriorate, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said she raised specific cases during the talks, including that of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, as well as his wife Liu Xia, now under extra-judicial house arrest.
"Regrettably yes, I think we've continued to see a deterioration in the overall human rights situation in China," Zeya said, pointing to growing harassment of family members, such as that of the relatives of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, now living in the United States.
"The targeting of family members is one reason for that assessment ... This is a worrisome trend and one which we have raised at senior levels with the Chinese government," Zeya added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping's appointment as Communist Party chief in a once-in-a-decade leadership change last November had inspired many Chinese with hope for political reform.
But rights groups say there has been no let up in the pressure on activists, dissidents and other groups, such as Tibetans, who have been pushing for reforms and more freedom.
China contested the U.S. version of events, saying it punishes criminal offenders justly and that the U.S. is interfering with its judicial sovereignty.
"Rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law, and China's judicial organs punish criminal offenders accordingly," China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on its website. "We hope the U.S. side will respect China's judicial sovereignty and stop its approach of becoming entangled with any individual cases."
China said it also raised what it sees as U.S. human rights problems in the dialogue, including discrimination against racial minorities, insufficient protection of indigenous peoples' rights, poor prison conditions and the use of torture in the fight against terrorism.
"We certainly did raise a number of specific cases ... In some cases we were able to receive some information. I would say overall it fell short of our expectations," Zeya said.
Since Xi became president in March, police have detained around 30 of those campaigning for officials to reveal their wealth, say rights groups. Among them is well-known legal activist Xu Zhiyong, whose case Zeya said she also raised.
She said the rights situation in the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang were also mentioned, besides the issue of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, who is reviled by Beijing as a separatist.
Speculation surfaced this year that China might take a softer line towards the Dalai Lama, partly due to an article by a scholar from the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, who said that China could take some steps to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives that broke down in 2010.
"We did discuss our concerns in depth with respect to controls in place in Tibet," Zeya said. "I would say that we did not come away with an impression of a shift in policy."
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jeremy Laurence)