WASHINGTON -- Arriving in Washington for what observers called the most significant China-U.S. summit in decades, Chinese President Hu Jintao was greeted on January 19 at the White House with red carpets, a 21-gun salute, and a lavish state dinner.
But Hu was given a decidedly different sort of welcome by hundreds of protesters who gathered at a park across from the White House as he met with U.S. President Barack Obama inside.
Protesters chanted, "Shame on China! Shame on Hu Jintao!" and "Hu Jintao lies, people die!"
On the two leaders' agenda was a range of issues, from Beijing's economic policies and military buildup to the North Korean crisis and the threat of climate change. Amid the pressing issues and the pageantry, some activists feared human rights would be overshadowed.
China was recently designated "not free" by the rights watchdog Freedom House, as it has been since the NGO started keeping track in the early 1970s, and Beijing's abysmal record on press, speech, political, and religious rights shows little sign of improvement.
Obama made a careful reference to the value of human rights in bilateral relations early in Hu's visit, during a welcome ceremony. "History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are more successful, and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being," he said.
Still, others in Washington weren't taking any chances that China's egregious rights record would be downplayed.
Congressmen and dissidents, flanked by representatives of Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Uyghur American Association, and other NGOs held a press briefing on Capitol Hill on January 19 just as Hu and Obama were holding their own press conference across town at the White House.
The activists' goal was to highlight Beijing's human rights failings and urge Obama to prioritize them in the U.S. relationship with China.
Congressman Chris Smith (Republican-New Jersey) said Hu's visit must be a "game-changer" in the way the United States addresses rights concerns and said the case of Liu Xioabo, the imprisoned rights activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia last month, symbolizes Beijing's iron-fisted rule.
"When you have a man who not only wouldn't allow Liu Xiaobo to travel to receive his Nobel Peace Prize but also held his wife and all friends associated with Liu Xiaobo from going to Oslo to receive the prize underscores both the fear, I would say the paranoia, and also the viciousness of this dictatorship," Smith said.
"The Washington Post" reported that Obama is the first U.S. president to host a head of state who is currently holding a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in prison.
'All Eyes On Obama'
Also appearing at the Congressional event was Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent advocate in exile for the rights of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority concentrated in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
The group's homeland was briefly granted autonomy in the 1940s under the name "East Turkestan," but was soon subsumed into China. According to rights watchdogs, hundreds of Uyghurs have been imprisoned and executed for political or insurgent activities, and advocates say the resettlement of Han Chinese in the Uyghur homeland is meant to subjugate their culture.
Uyghur rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer at a rally near the White House to protest Chinese President Hu Jintao, January 19.
Kadeer said the time was right for Obama to make a difference. "At this time, all eyes in China are focused on this summit between U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Hu because millions of people there believe that President Obama can make great change by speaking out on human rights issues, whether it's the rights of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, or the Chinese people, who are all suffering under the rule of the authoritarian government," she said.
"We all believe that President Obama will not disappoint the hopes and dreams of the millions of people who are suffering under Chinese rule," she added.
The Uyghur advocate later joined hundreds of protesters at the rally in front of the White House, where the flags of Tibet, Taiwan, and the Uyghur homeland outnumbered the U.S. and Chinese flags that had been raised together for Hu's visit.
Tenzin Dolkar, from the New York-based activist group Students for a Free Tibet, was also among the protesters. "Chinese President Hu Jintao has tried but failed to convince the world that China is open and democratic, but his ultraviolent rule in Tibet and the abuses committed against his own Chinese people show that in fact, China remains an unchanged, repressive, and authoritarian state," he said.
Advocates say Beijing has systematically tortured political prisoners in Tibet and clamped down on the basic rights of its people.
Last February, Obama hosted the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, in a move that infuriated Beijing, which regards him as representing an illegal separatist movement.
With Hu standing next to him, the U.S. president said the United States recognized Tibet as a part of the People's Republic of China but supports further dialogue between China and representatives of the Dalai Lama.
Obama said he had been "very candid" with Hu about China's human rights record, but the Chinese president is expected to face even greater candor on January 20 when he meets with Congressional leaders from both parties.
President Hu continues his state visit to the United States with a visit to Chicago on January 20. There Hu will meet business leaders and is expected to sign a number of U.S.-China trade deals.
with contributions from RFE/RL correspondent Muhammad Tahir