White House sends tough message on NGOs as Xi visits

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice at George Washington University in Washington, DC on Sept 21, 2015.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice at George Washington University in Washington, DC on Sept 21, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A top White House official Tuesday hosted US non-governmental groups who face tough new Chinese security laws, a high-profile statement of concern as Xi Jinping arrived in the United States.

White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice met several representatives from among the universities, businesses and rights groups that would be forced to register and report to the Chinese security services if the draft law enters into force.

"Today's discussion focused on concerns that the draft legislation would further narrow space for civil society in China," the White House said in a statement that came hours after the Chinese leader landed in the United States.

Sources familiar with Rice's talks said it included some organizations that receive US government grants.

The controversial draft law looks set to be yet another area of contention when Xi meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday for a summit designed to strengthen ties.

"I think the president will make that clear," a senior administration official told AFP, describing the draft law as "deeply troubling" and its impact "very unfortunate." "We are going to find some opportunities to speak out on that issue and also find an opportunity to meet some of the stakeholders involved." The Obama-Xi summit has already been beset by arguments over cyber hacking and China's increasingly assertive land grabs in the South China Sea.

"Our concern with the law is profound," said the official.

"First of all it is very broad, it gives a huge role to the ministry of public security, not the ministry of civil affairs that used to manage these groups.

"I have heard a number of these groups saying that they are having to question whether they will remain in China, whether they will curtail their activities in China or whether they will cancel plans to establish a presence in China." The White House said the legislation could hinder services to the Chinese people and "constrain US-China people-to-people exchanges."

Pressure to push back

Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said "there's a lot of pressure on the administration to push back on this, to get the Chinese to change it."

"Take Yale University, for example. They have a presence in China. If in New Haven they choose to host a dissident or the Dalai Lama or something like that, technically under this law the people in China would be subject to arrest."

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio urged Obama to take a tougher line with Xi.

"The past year alone has been marked by further erosion of rule of law, tightening restrictions on civil society and outright attacks on human rights defenders and political dissidents," he wrote in an opinion article that appeared in the Washington Examiner.

He urged Obama to invite Chinese human rights activists to Xi's state dinner.

"Too often the Obama administration wants credit for 'raising human rights' - but passing mentions and diminished significance in the broader bilateral agenda provides little solace to the brave men and women who face unimaginable obstacles and hardship for daring to claim their most basic human rights," Rubio wrote.

Xi did not fully dispel the criticisms late Tuesday when he addressed the issue in a wide-ranging speech in Seattle.

"China recognizes the positive role of foreign non-profit organizations. So long as their activities are beneficial to the Chinese people, we will not restrict or prohibit their operations," he said, adding they have "legitimate rights and interests."

But he added that, for their part, the foreign NGOs in China "need to obey Chinese law and carry out activities in accordance with the law."