US vice President Joe Biden called for China to address a “deterioration” of its human rights record as he met activists ahead of a key visit by his Chinese counterpart, the White House said.
Biden – the host for next week’s visit by Chinese vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely tipped to be the Asian power’s next leader – met jointly Wednesday with four advocates for human rights.
In the meeting, Biden and the activists “discussed the deterioration of China’s human rights situation, prospects for reform and recommendations for US policy,” a White House statement said.
“He reiterated his view that greater openness and protection of universal rights is the best way to promote innovation, prosperity and stability in all countries, including China,” it said.
US-based activists widely criticised President Barack Obama’s administration when it took office in 2009 for what they saw as a downplaying of human rights concerns as it sought cooperation with Beijing.
The administration has insisted that human rights are a major US priority. Obama held a similar meeting with activists before a state visit last year to Washington by President Hu Jintao.
The White House said Biden met Li Xiaorong, a founding member of the group Human Rights in China; Benjamin Liebman, a Columbia University expert on China’s legal system; Zha Jianying, an expert on Chinese media and pop culture, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Sophie Richardson, who oversees Human Rights Watch’s work on China, said that the Obama administration should meet not just with scholars but with former political prisoners from China.
“We’re perfectly happy to give our views, but as a symbolic gesture to underscore that you’re serious about hearing independent voices from China, the president should meet – and be seen to be meeting – with these other kinds of people as well,” Richardson said.
Richardson said Obama should consider meeting Yu Jie, a prominent dissident writer who recently fled to the United States, and Rebiya Kadeer, a formerly jailed leader of China’s Uighur minority who lives in exile in Washington.
Former president George W. Bush met with Kadeer and other prominent dissidents including Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu shortly before he visited Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
China last year carried out one of its biggest clampdowns on dissent in years, detaining numerous activists amid a wave of protests in the Arab world against authoritarian leaders.
Human rights groups say Chinese authorities recently have put some Tibetan areas under virtual martial law after a series of self-immolations, mostly by monks, to protest rights conditions in the largely Buddhist region.
Walter Lohman, the director of the Asian studies centre at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suspected that Biden may have met with activists in hopes of easing pressure to bring up human rights with Xi.
“It’s actually a way to take the issue off the table, not a way to put it on the table,” Lohman said. “He talks to them, he gets it out of his system, and then he can talk about it in the broadest strokes when he’s with Xi Jinping.”
Obama and Biden will welcome Xi to the White House on Tuesday. The Chinese heir apparent will also visit Iowa and California on a trip that the US administration hopes will encourage cooperation between the Pacific powers.
Biden spoke to Xi by telephone on Tuesday to lay the groundwork for the trip and said that the United States hopes to cooperate with the rising Asian power on “practical issues.”
Li, Liebman and Zha did not respond to requests for comment on their meeting with Biden. Li, in an article in The New York Review of Books after her talks with Obama last year, called on the United States to hold China to account over its “rhetorical commitments” on human rights.
“If the Chinese government is called upon to observe the constitutional and legal commitments that it has made to its own citizens – some of which are inscribed in international protocols – it can hardly claim ‘interference,’” she wrote. -By Shaun Tandon