Protests are taking place in many parts of China.
In Tibetan areas, religious freedom is at issue and a wave of self-immolations is sparking international outcry.
Elsewhere, people are taking to the streets to protest environmental issues and local corruption.
Cheng Li is with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"You do see serious resentment among the public for various things, for example disparity and media freedom, ethnic or religious rights, all these issues," said Li.
The threats to stability come at a time when the U.S. and China are increasingly reliant on each other - and are economic competitors.
With Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping heading to Washington (February 14), the two countries are at a historic crossroad, says Chinese human rights activist Gao Wenqian. Gao Wenqian is a senior policy adviser at Human Rights in China. He spoke to VOA via Skype.
"Xi Jinping's visit is not any ordinary visit, it comes at an important time in history as the United States and China are marking the 40th anniversary of the start of U.S.-China relations, and what they are now facing is an opportunity to reexamine and reposition the relationship," he said.
China is in the midst of a leadership reshuffle, and has taken aggressive and sometimes harsh steps to stifle dissent, rights activists say.
The crackdown started early last year, when Chinese leaders began worrying about what Gao Wenqian says is the government's worst nightmare - an Arab Spring or Tunisian-style Jasmine Revolution in China.
"From the time last year that netizens [online citizens] began calling online for Jasmine gatherings, the Chinese government has been scared out of its wits and has relentlessly used its most extreme measures to crack down, including kidnapping, forced disappearances and torture," said Gao Wenqian.
U.S. officials have repeatedly raised concerns about human rights with China, but with limited success.
The challenge during Xi's visit will be striking a balance between aggressively raising concerns and being sensitive to the realities in China, says Cheng Li.
"Certainly we should express American values, American ideas and American goodwill about China..... improving its human rights record," he said. "But, if you only lecture, you probably will not resonate very well, not only with China's leaders, but also the Chinese public will be outraged."
For Xi, stabilizing the differences in the relationship will be his key goal, says Gao.
"To do this, Xi has prepared a big “red envelope" [of trade deals] with lots of money to try and seal America's lips, the same way that Chinese authorities spend money to buy stability at home," he said.
Whether Xi will succeed in that effort, he adds, depends on the vision of U.S. leaders and whether Washington uses this historic moment to make a fresh start in the relationship.