Human rights campaigners are hoping US President Donald Trump will press China’s President Xi Jinping on the issue when the pair meet this week, but they will not be holding their breath.
Most activists said they were not optimistic that the visit would improve the situation facing China’s political prisoners, especially those like Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
“Trump doesn’t care about human rights, [but I] will not give up as long as there is a possibility,” veteran activist Hu Jia, who has been campaigning for human rights in China for the past 17 years, said.
“The visit is an opportunity to solve Liu Xia’s problems. It just depends whether Trump will grab it,” he said.
“Just a tweet or a brief private conversation would make a difference.”
Last week, more than 50 authors, including Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood, urged Trump to seek the release of 56-year-old Liu.
They said they hoped Trump would “voice the United States’ concern about the inhumane and unjustifiable detention of a poet who has been accused of no crime”.
Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in July while in custody. Western governments appealed to Beijing for him to be granted medical parole, but to no avail.
Liu Xia had been under house arrest for seven years before her husband’s death. Her current whereabouts are unknown, but it is believed she is still in some form of detention.
She was last seen in a video in a hotel room, which her friends later confirmed was in southwest China’s Yunnan province soon after her husband’s funeral.
Despite the authors’ and activists’ appeals, observers said human rights would not be high on Trump’s agenda.
“[It’s] hard to see Trump championing a cause that he does not even know about or is interested in,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said.
At China’s five-yearly national party congress last month, Xi cemented his grip on power, prompting comparisons to late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Tsang said China would listen to no one but Xi.
“In the ‘new era’, Xi is confident about his leadership and China’s direction … and is not interested in what other countries have to say about [it], particularly on issues like human rights,” he said.
It’s a view apparently shared by Trump, who referred to Xi as “the king of China”.
“Some people might call him the king of China, but he’s called president,” Trump said last month in an interview on Fox Business Network.
White House chief of staff John Kelly said it was not up to the US to “pass judgment” on Beijing, and praised China for its “system of government that has apparently worked for the Chinese people”.
Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, said any efforts by US officials to raise human rights would not “gain traction in Beijing” after the “public lavish praise” by Trump and Kelly.
“There’s no shortage of serious human rights violations to discuss – the urgent need to free Liu Xia and others wrongfully detained, to repeal highly abusive national security laws, to push back against Beijing’s increasing proclivity to commit abuses beyond its borders,” Richardson said.
Tsang agreed, saying “professional diplomats are not particularly well represented in the Trump administration”.
“Their capacity to have a significant impact on Trump’s agenda is much lower than in all recent administrations,” he said.