WASHINGTON — A top State Department official said Thursday that there was a “growing sense of alarm in the United States about human rights developments in China,” vowing that the issue would feature prominently in summit talks between President Xi Jinping of China and President Obama in Washington next month.
The official, Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, cited concerns about a proposed law in China that would severely restrict civil society and nongovernmental organizations, as well as recent roundups of lawyers and activists.
“Our ability to have a very positive summit of the sort that the Chinese government and the U.S. government wants will certainly be affected by the extent to which things get better or worse in the interim,” Mr. Malinowski said, addressing reporters after the close of the 19th U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, in which diplomats from the two countries criticized each other’s record on human rights.
The Chinese diplomats raised concerns about recent police shootings in the United States. “The Ferguson case was raised briefly,” Mr. Malinowski said, “and I actually thought this was quite interesting because they said, ‘We all saw that on TV,’ and my response, without in any way diminishing the seriousness of the problem that we are facing in the United States, was, ‘Exactly, you saw it on TV.’ ”
Reporters in China are not free to report on similar episodes of violence, and victims, their family members and lawyers are not able to petition for redress without fear of retribution from the government, Mr. Malinowski said he told his Chinese counterparts, who did not participate in the news briefing.
Mr. Malinowski, who served for more than a decade as the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, has long been a prominent and passionate advocate for human rights. While he promised that the Obama administration would advocate forcefully on these issues with the Chinese, his ability to deliver on that vow is far from clear.
Mr. Obama has a long list of issues to discuss with Mr. Xi, including climate change, cybersecurity, open navigation of the South China Sea and economic concerns. And as China has become increasingly central to the global economy, its leaders have grown less willing to be lectured about human rights.
While the human rights dialogue is supposed to be an annual affair, the two countries skipped having one last year, something Mr. Malinowski said he could not explain. Even the timing of Thursday’s briefing — late in the afternoon on the eve of a visit to Cuba by Secretary of State John Kerry — all but ensured that it would receive little news coverage.
“China has become increasingly allergic to these human rights discussions,” said Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “And China is strong enough now to set the terms of the discussion to its own benefit.”
China has the world’s second-largest economy, and it is so deeply integrated into the global economy that shifts in its policies or outlook have international repercussions. An abrupt devaluation of its currency this week, for instance, rattled stock markets around the world.
Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said that repression of rights in China had become so grave that Western governments could no longer ignore it. “It’s no longer easy to draw a line between human rights issues and everything else,” Ms. Richardson said.
A bipartisan group from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter this week to Mr. Obama urging him to make human rights a “key and public component of the agenda” during Mr. Xi’s state visit. But the senators acknowledged in their letter that the two leaders had a long list of issues to discuss.
Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, an international human rights organization based in Washington, said that China’s increasingly intense censorship of the Internet had become a vital business issue for many American companies, blurring the lines between human rights and economic interests. For that reason, she said, American officials must raise human rights concerns more forcefully.
“You can no longer separate the economic concerns of U.S. companies from the human rights concerns about citizens in China,” Ms. Cook said.