President Obama should cancel a state visit to the White House for Chinese President Xi Jinping unless the latter releases dozens of political prisoners and detained human rights lawyers, a group of dissident Chinese lawyers and activists said Tuesday.
In comments released by the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, the activists said the state visit would harm Chinese civil society and tarnish the image of the United States. The summit is scheduled for late September.
Since becoming president in March 2013, Xi has developed a reputation as the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong for his repression of dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities.
If the Obama administration fails to press Beijing on its detention of lawyers and dissidents and "lays out the red carpet for President Xi," it will send the message that the United States has turned "a blind eye to what’s happening," the activists said.
"Without substantial improvement before the visit, it will hurt Chinese civil society and harm America’s image and strategic interests," one activist told the rights group.
Another lawyer said, "We’ll be sorely disappointed if the Obama administration doesn’t exert significant pressure on Xi. The Chinese government’s persecution of civil society actors is full of blood and tears, with so many families torn apart."
The rights group released the comments made by the dissidents without specifically naming them, out of fear for their safety.
The group also said in a statement that Xi will likely use the state visit to secure domestic support.
"The visit would boost his much-needed political legitimacy at home while Chinese state media will censor any statement from Obama critical of China’s human rights," it said.
Additionally, previous attempts by the Obama administration to engage China on human rights issues have not been fruitful, the group said.
"President Obama and Xi’s two previous summits—in California and Beijing—and the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue (held in 2013 and 2015) have been accompanied by a rapidly worsening human rights situation," it said. "The bilateral dialogs may have ended with strong public statements by the U.S. on China’s human rights problems, but, without substantive pressure, no improvements have come about as a result of these meetings."
The Obama administration has said it will discuss the human rights situation in China during Xi’s visit along with other contentious issues, including Chinese cyber attacks on U.S. businesses and federal agencies and Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea.
"We have high-level interactions such as the upcoming visit precisely so that we have opportunities for the President to resolve, or if not possible, to narrow our differences with the Chinese," said a senior administration official.
Xi’s escalating campaign against Chinese civil society has alarmed rights advocates in both China and the United States. After the Chinese Communist Party jailed anti-corruption activists—despite Xi’s own initiative to root out corrupt officials—it has more recently targeted human rights lawyers.
More than 300 lawyers were interrogated in a sweeping campaign in July, and 23 lawyers and activists are still being held in official detention or at unknown locations, according to the rights group.
Chinese authorities have also detained or harassed Christians that belong to both state-sanctioned and underground churches, ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs, activists who commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year, and members of non-government organizations that receive foreign money.
The rights group said torture is still "endemic" in Chinese detention facilities and jails. Prisoners are often denied medical treatment, and at least four individuals have died in detention in recent years, including activist Cao Shunli.
A new national security law and draft legislation on counterterrorism, foreign non-government organizations, and Internet security could lead to even more abuses of dissidents, the group said.
"All of these pieces of legislation are attempts to legitimize ongoing restrictions on speech, religion, and escalating suppression on civil society," it said.
Authorities have already moved swiftly to censor online speech. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that nearly 200 people were targeted for allegedly spreading false information online about recent events, including the country’s stock market plunge and explosions in Tianjin that killed at least 158 people.
The rights group said Obama has not lived up to his pledge in 2009 to only engage with authoritarian powers that are "willing to unclench" their fists.