ucanews.com reporter, BeijingUpdated: September 16, 2015 12:24 AM GMT
Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding before his disappearance in 1997. (ucanews.com file photo)
A bishop and a Christian lawyer are among those being featured in a new rights campaign by a U.S. presidential hopeful, designed to apply pressure before Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the White House next week.
The initiative focuses on 20 dissidents and religious figures who are representative of the harshest rights crackdown by Beijing in recent memory, said Sen. Marco Rubio, head of the U.S. congressional commission on China.
"We want to send the message that the imprisonment of rights advocates, lawyers and religious people is unnecessary, unjust and completely counterproductive," he said launching the campaign in Washington D.C. on Sept. 15. Rubio is a U.S. Republican presidential candidate for next year's election.
Two dissidents will be featured in the campaign on each of the 10 days leading up to Xi's meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Sept. 25.
Pope Francis is due to meet Obama two days earlier. No meeting is scheduled between Xi and the pope in the United States as both sides continue talks on solving the key problem of bishop ordinations in China.
Christians have faced persecution as part of a broader program by Beijing designed to sideline dissenting voices and those deemed a threat to Communist Party rule.
Bishop James Su Zhimin, one of the 20 prisoners featured in Rubio's campaign, has spent the past 18 years in prison after refusing to join the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1996.
The Communist Party organ overseeing religious affairs, the United Front Work Department, told the bishop's family last month that he was a "bargaining chip" in talks with the Vatican, a source close to the family told ucanews.com. The bishop's whereabouts remain unknown.
Zhang Kai, a Protestant lawyer who helped churches sue state officials amid a cross-removal campaign in Zhejiang province, is facing charges of threatening state security following his detention last month.
Others featured in the new campaign include Tibetan singer Lolo, arrested in 2012 after singing for the return of the Dalai Lama, and Wangdu, a former Buddhist monk turned AIDS activist serving a life term for "espionage."
Advocating 'dissident diplomacy'
At least 1,300 political and religious prisoners are believed to be detained in China, according to a database compiled by the U.S. congressional commission.
Among them, Guo Yushan was released on Sept. 14 in a move believed designed to appease the United States ahead of Xi's visit, rights groups said.
"Relations have become contentious on a range of issues, including human rights. So they've decided to fall back on a longtime strategy of ‘dissident diplomacy'," said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based China researcher for Amnesty International.
Amnesty was among nine Western rights groups that together wrote an open letter to Obama last week calling on the U.S. president to invite representatives of Chinese civil society to the White House ahead of Xi's visit.
Recent meetings between the U.S. and China have seen U.S. officials raise rights concerns in private, and after meetings with the media, but not publicly in front of Chinese officials.
In an interview with state news agency Xinhua, state councilor Yang Jiechi said China was ready to discuss human rights with other countries including the U.S. "on the basis of mutual respect."
"In regard to human rights, let me say a lot of progress has been made in China," he said. "Of course, no country is perfect in their human rights record."