The worsening human rights situation is best illustrated by the authorities’ decision to deny dissidents’ families the right to visit them. For instance, the wife of dissident writer Liu Xiaobo has been unable to see him since he lost his appeal three months ago.
The situation of activist Hu Jia, sentenced to three and half years “for inciting subversion” in 2008, is even worse. His wife Zeng Jinyan (pictured) has been unable to see him despite the fact that he might be suffering from lives cancer. She is afraid that he might not be getting proper care.
Former university professor Guo Quan, who was jailed for 10 years for setting up an online pro-democracy group, has also been deprived of visits.
Anti-abortion activist Mao Hengfeng was sentenced to 18 months of "re-education-through-labour" in March, and her husband Wu Xuewei does not even know her whereabouts.
In the past, Beijing tended to be more respectful of human rights when it held human rights talks with other countries. It was not the case this time. Chinese authorities are well aware that the United States wants their cooperation on the nuclear issue in Iran and North Korea as well as on climate change and other delicate issues.
Some experts suggest that in exchange for support on such issues, Beijing might get the Washington to tone down its criticism of China’s treatment of human rights activists, pro-democracy dissidents and religious groups as well as its censorship of the Internet.
Still, China slammed US President Barack Obama for a US$ 6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan and his meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader.
This may explain why both sides are interested in avoiding failure this time.
On 9 May, a US State Department spokesperson said this week's talks were a chance for a conversation "about what the rule of law means in the 21st century".
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said in Beijing on Thursday, "dialogue is better than confrontation". However, an English-language, state-run newspaper, the Global Times, told the US not to lecture Beijing like a "schoolchild".
"China and the US should learn from each other as equals, instead of giving each other lectures, or criticising one another," its editorial said.
By contrast, activists have said that human rights abuses have become worse in China following arrests and heavy sentences imposed on known dissidents (like Charter 08 author Liu Xiaobo, and advocates for Sichuan quake victims Hunag Qi and Tan Zuoren). They accuse the Obama administration of playing down human rights issues whilst seeking Beijing's co-operation on economic matters amid one of America's worst economic crises.
However, the picture is more complex. Shiyu Zhou, of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIFC), said that US State Department offered his group US$ 1.5 million last week to buy equipment and material to bypass Chinese Internet censorship.
The GIFC is run by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that is banned in China.
Chinese Internet censorship is one of the most egregious examples of China’s human rights violations.