The Feb. 14 visit to Washington by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gives the United States a well-timed opportunity to lay its cards on the table for China's presumptive next president and Communist Party chairman. With U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke's recent characterization of China's human rights situation as "worsening," the United States should use Mr. Xi's visit to state unambiguously that a failure to reverse that trend constitutes a serious obstacle to better bilateral relations. The U.S. can take three steps to ensure he gets that Valentine's Day message.
First, President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden could highlight individual cases that represent some of the most serious abuses taking place today. They could press Mr. Xi over his government's torment of the blind, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng and reiterate their call to free the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Mr. Chen was imprisoned from 2006 to 2010 on spurious charges of "disrupting traffic." His real "offense" was probably his effort to seek legal redress for women who were victims of forced abortions in his home province of Shandong. The Chinese government is apparently so afraid of Mr. Chen that since he was released from prison Sept. 9, 2010, he and his family have been illegally detained in their home by gangs of plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest. The defiance of these thugs by Mr. Chen and his family has reportedly resulted in vicious reprisal beatings.
Mr. Liu is serving an 11-year prison term for "inciting subversion" over his role in drafting Charter 08, an online petition advocating peaceful political change in China and respect for rights and freedoms embodied in China's constitution. Efforts to silence him extend to his wife, Liu Xia, who is believed to be under house arrest to prevent her from campaigning on her husband's behalf.
A truly productive conversation would also communicate U.S. concerns for human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, whom the Chinese government forcibly disappeared in April 2010 as an apparent reprisal for his fearless legal defense of marginalized groups, including democracy activists and members of religious minorities. A Beijing court announced Dec. 16 that Mr. Gao would be sent to a prison in northwestern Xinjiang province to serve the entirety of a three-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power," while prison authorities are denying his family's legal right to visit him.
The United States can also underscore its concerns by inviting to the White House any Chinese government critics and former political prisoners who have sought refuge in the United States.
Over the past year, the Chinese government has "disappeared" some of its most high-profile critics, apparently holding them in secret detention without any legal protection and judicial procedure -a serious crime under international law. Starting in February 2011, Chinese security agencies detained dozens of the country's most outspoken critics, including the renowned artist-activist Ai Weiwei, and disappeared them for days or weeks.
While all were eventually released, it should be of profound concern to all those with a stake in the establishment of a functioning legal system that a provision in China's draft criminal procedure law could effectively legalize such disappearances. Inviting into the White House people who have endured these and other kinds of abuses would be an important gesture of solidarity with independent Chinese voices and an unequivocal means of demonstrating to the Chinese government that its views are not the only ones that matter to the United States.
Finally, the administration can signal to Mr. Xi diplomatic efforts designed to boost the effectiveness of bilateral engagement on human rights. Mr. Obama could inform Mr. Xi that each of the agencies participating in this year's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue will devote time to human rights issues. This "whole of government" approach on human rights in China will provide a host of key opportunities to raise the broad importance of better respect for the rule of law, the free flow of information and respect for peaceful criticism.
Mr. Xi should also be informed of benchmarks to be met before the next session of the bilateral Human Rights Dialogue. Those indicators could include locating and freeing people detained, disappeared and/or sentenced for peacefully exercising their rights, and a commitment from the Chinese government to resume meaningful negotiations to address long-standing grievances with representatives of ethnic minority communities, particularly Tibetans and Uighurs.
The U.S.-China relationship is vexed by any number of difficult issues ranging from currency and trade concerns to management of China's unpredictable, nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea. But a "worsening" human rights environment is an ominous indicator of the retreat from the rule of law in China under its current senior leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. It merits a strong response from the United States. Taking these steps will help ensure that Vice President Xi will return to China with a clear understanding that healthy bilateral relations are at risk as long as the Chinese government continues to abuse its citizens.
Phelim Kine is a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch