Pro-democracy protesters carry portraits of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong, April 10, 2011
Pro-democracy protesters carry portraits of detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong, April 10, 2011

Chinese dissidents and human rights activists have told members of a U.S. congressional panel that the Chinese government has increased its repression of artists, dissidents, human rights lawyers and foreign journalists over the past several months.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Chairman, Republican Chris Smith, is passionate about condemning human rights violations in China. Smith said that ever since mid-February, when the world began to witness widespread street protests in the Middle East and Africa, the Chinese government has been cracking down harder on any perceived dissent or threat.

"Government harrassment of lawyers and law firms that work on human rights cases or other politically-sensitive matters is absolutely on the rise," Smith said.

Renowned Chinese dissidents and human rights activists Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu both testified at the hearing, saying the current wave of arbitrary court rulings against dissenters makes them fear that China could return to the lawless state it was in during the Cultural Revolution more than forty years ago.

"Especially in the last half-year, China's human rights has been deteriorating rapidly," Wei Jinsheng said.

Several witnesses at the hearing expressed concern about a recent wave of forced disappearances. Andrea Worden of

American University said that at least 23 activists have disappeared in recent months, and that this is unprecedented. She said there is evidence that torture often accompanies the disappearances.

The Chinese government has repeatedly said that it has improved its human rights record and objects to outside interference in its internal affairs.

But Democratic Congressman Donald Payne said the United States must speak out more strongly about human rights violations in China. "It is my strong belief that the United States cannot be indifferent to Chinese human rights violations. I firmly believe that a nation that pursues wealth by silencing its citizens is building a foundation in sand which cannot resist the tide of civilian unrest," Payne said.

Other lawmakers expressed concern that it may only be a matter of time until the Chinese government's disregard for the rule of law has an impact on U.S. corporations doing business in China.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said China's effort to hold off the kind of democratic changes that are sweeping the Middle East is doomed to failure. The remark came as Clinton and other U.S. officials met with Chinese officials for economic talks in Washington, D.C.