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Human Rights Increasingly Challenged in China

Demonstrators in China (file photo)

Demonstrators in China (file photo)

A wide range of contentious issues will loom over next week's summit between Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama when they meet in Washington D.C., and one issue the two sides remain deeply divided over is human rights.

The way China treated food activist Zhao Lianhai is one recent example where perceptions in the United States and China diverge.

Late last year, Zhao was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for allegedly inciting public unrest. His crime - organizing a support group for parents affected by one of the country's worst food safety scandals, the tainted baby formula scandal that killed six children and sickened nearly 300,000.

As China's assertiveness and importance in the international arena grows, human rights activists say it is becoming difficult to draw attention to human rights issues there - from Chinese authorities tight control of minority regions like Tibet to the imprisonment of individuals such as Zhao or Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo who have spoken out about injustices or called for change.

"Ten years ago, it was not particularly difficult to get 25 members of Congress to sign a letter demanding the release of a particular individual. It’s much harder to do now because members of Congress are concerned about whether businesses from their districts are still going to be able to invest in China, whether they are going to make any money, whether the Chinese government will refuse to be more cooperative on sanctions on Iran or North Korea if they sign that letter," said Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington D.C.

Activists say there is a perception problem in the West that development equals improvements in personal freedom.

"There is a feeling that because the Bund in Shanghai could now easily be confused with Manhattan or L.A., surely things are all heading in the right direction. And often what we say to people is - "sure some aspects of life in China are certainly better than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago, but there are still red lines people cannot cross," Richardson said.

Wan Yanhai, an AIDS activist in China has some personal experience with that. Wan was forced to flee China with his family last year after his organization, the Aizhixing Institute of Health and Education, came under increasing pressure and harassment. He is now a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Wan says there is a perception problem among Chinese officials as well. "Many who should be tolerated, they could be sought as potential partners of the Chinese government in the development agenda, but they were targeted like Liu Xiaobo. Although Liu Xiaobo is a political dissident, he’s a moderate and he chose peaceful petition and democratic transition but also he is friendly to the communist party, but he was targeted," Wan said.

Wan was one of several activists who flew to Norway last month to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo. China refused to let Liu or his family attend. He is currently serving an 11 year sentence for launching an online petition that called for political change in China.

China calls the award an obscenity because it was given to a man it considers a criminal and accuses the U.S. and the international community of trying to meddle in its internal affairs.

John Kerry, a Democratic U.S. Senator from the northeastern state of Massachusetts says Washington needs to continually stress to China that such actions hurt its international standing. But, he adds the two need each other to address a wide range of issues such as the global economy, terrorism and climate change.

"But whether we’re impressed or disappointed with China’s progress. Let me make this clear, the simple fact is that - We need China and China needs us. We have to get this relationship right," he said.

U.S. officials say President Obama will discuss human rights with Mr. Hu during their meeting and list the issue as one of several "tremendously important" topics the two will discuss. How much will come out of that discussion, however, is unclear. Activists, for their part, say they do not expect any surprise announcements from Mr. Hu.