Chinese dissidents have urged Barack Obama to confront Xi Jinping over what they called China’s worst human rights crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown when he travels to the G20 economic summit in Hangzhou this week.
During a meeting at the White House on Tuesday afternoon, prominent Chinese activists told Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, that China’s president had presided over a dramatic offensive against opponents of the Communist party since taking power in late 2012.
Teng Biao, an exiled human rights lawyer who was among those invited to address Rice, told the Guardian he had called on the US president to publicly speak out on what is likely to be his final presidential visit to Asia.
“China is experiencing its worst human rights crackdown since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989,” Teng said.
“Especially since Xi Jinping came to power, many human rights lawyers and activists were detained and disappeared; many, many NGOs were shut down; and other civil society organizations, universities, media, internet, Christian churches and other religious groups were also targeted. It is obvious that the Chinese government has violated human rights and the current situation is very, very worrying,” he added.
World leaders will fly into Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern china, later this week ahead of the two-day summit which kicks off on Sunday.
Obama and Xi are scheduled to meet for the first time on Saturday for what the White House this week called “an extensive bilateral meeting”.
Officials said the pair would then share a “small dinner” on Saturday night.
Speaking on Monday, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the US president would use his time with Xi to review “all of the issues that have been front and center in the US-China relationship for the last seven and a half years” including flash-points such as the South China Sea, cyber espionage and “our longstanding differences on human rights”.
Teng, who fled China in September 2014 and lives in exile in New Jersey with his family, said White House officials had summoned a small group of activists “to talk about the G20 summit and what President Obama should do when he is in Hangzhou”.
Also invited to the meeting were Lu Jun, a civil society activist who was forced to leave China after security forces targeted his organization; the Tibetan activist Golog Jigme; the executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, Alim Seytoff; and Bob Fu, a prominent Christian activist.
Zhang Qing, wife of the democracy activist Guo Feixong, who has been on hunger strike in a prison in southern China, is also understood to have been present.
Speaking after the meeting, which lasted about 80 minutes, Teng said he had told Rice he hoped Obama would publicly call for the release of a series of “political prisoners” and activists. They included the jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo as well as Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, two civil rights lawyers caught up in a Communist party crackdown on their trade.
Teng also urged Obama to highlight the plight of dissidents being held in prisons in Hangzhou, the G20’s host city, and to draw attention to local political activists who have been placed under house arrest to prevent them speaking out ahead of the summit.
Rice had not indicated to her guests how Obama planned to handle human rights issues during his visit to China, Teng added.
“She didn’t say anything about what they are going to do but we did give her a clear message. We know it will be President Obama’s last trip to China and Asia as American president and we hope that the American government can really give a message to China and to the world that human rights are part of American policy.”
Asked if she was hopeful that the US might publicly denounce Xi’s crackdown, Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, said: “I don’t see a good reason what they can’t … It’s a question of whether they really believe that this is an important issue and are wiling to put it out in a very frank and public way while standing in China.”
Richardson said Obama – who received the 2009 Nobel peace prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples” – had a particular duty to demand the release of Liu Xiaobo, China’s best-known dissident. Liu was awarded the same prize a year later after being jailed for 11 years for subversion as a result of his calls for political reform.
“I do think that it would be unconscionable for the 2009 Nobel peace prize winner to fail to publicly call for the release of the 2010 Nobel peace prize winner. Unconscionable,” Richardson said.
“He’s done it from Washington. He’s done it from New York. They’ve done it in statements. He needs to stand up in public in China and say that. If Obama is really standing with civil society that’s what he must do. If he is genuinely concerned about the fate of independent organizations and lawyers he cannot do less.”
Political opponents also urged Obama to confront Xi over human rights abuses, although an anticipated joint announcement that the US and China will ratify the Paris climate agreement makes it unlikely he will be overly critical of his hosts.
In a statement, the Republican senator Marco Rubio said: “I am glad the Obama administration is meeting with men and women who can speak authoritatively about the Chinese government’s gross human rights abuses, but I urge the president to meet with these freedom fighters himself and then press President Xi directly at the G20 summit regarding his government’s failure to uphold the rule of law and its violations of the Chinese people’s basic human rights.”
Chris Smith, a Republican congressman who chairs the congressional-executive commission on China, said: “[Obama] should consider doing something radically different on his last trip to China, something that will give hope to China’s dissidents and freedom advocates. Mildly raising human rights issues is important, but not enough anymore.”