Chinese lawyers who met with reporters in Washington, just weeks before President Obama visits Beijing, cited their own experiences as examples of what needs to be done for China to embrace the rule of law.
This, they said, would enable China's judiciary to hear cases involving human rights and religious freedom without interference from officials who fear damage to national security.
"We have high expectations concerning President Obama's visit to China. We hope he will push forward some issues like religious freedom and human rights," said Jiang Tianyong, who has defended activist Chen Guangcheng and other high-profile dissidents. Mr. Chen, who is blind, is serving a four-year sentence.
Mr. Obama plans to visit China in mid-November, prompting speculation on whether he will emphasize human rights in private talks with leaders such as President Hu Jintao and in public comments.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton created a stir before her February visit to China when she told reporters that the U.S. would continue to press China on human rights but not at the expense of other issues such as the global economic crisis, climate change and national security.
Five Chinese lawyers met reporters at the National Press Club on Wednesday to discuss their concerns ahead of the Obama visit.
Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based rights group China Aid and an organizer of the event, described his guests as "voices for the voiceless, defenders of the defenseless."
Mr. Jiang, for example, has been placed several times under house arrest and lost his license to practice law in June.
"I defended more than 20 cases involving Falun Gong practitioners," he said, referring to a banned spiritual group known for its meditation exercises.
"Physical torture was quite common. After their arrest, they were often beaten to the point of being paralyzed or [death]. They had trouble gaining access to a lawyer, and even for the lawyer it was difficult to work: We would be stalked, harassed or beaten," Mr. Jiang said.
Wang Baodong, spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said the Chinese government attaches great importance to protecting and improving the human rights of people of all ethnic minorities and interest groups.
"At the same time," Mr. Wang said in an e-mail statement Thursday, "China is a country ruled by law, no one is entitled to act above the Chinese Constitution and laws. We hope that the American public gain an objective and comprehensive picture of the situation in China, instead of being misled by certain people with political motives."
Mr. Wang said China is ready to engage with the U.S. on human rights dialogues and communication "on the basis of mutual respect and equality."
"We believe President Obama's upcoming visit to China will serve to further push forward the positive and cooperative relations between China and the Unites States in a comprehensive way," Mr. Wang added.
Chinese officials often bristle at outside criticism of their human rights record, calling such criticism interference in China's internal affairs.
Dai Jinbo, a lawyer for a network of Chinese house churches that operate independent of state-backed churches, said that religious freedom remains a distant dream in China.
"Religious freedom is the foundation for human rights," Mr. Dai said.
Any religious activity in China that does not fall within the legal framework of the National Regulations on Religious Affairs (NRRA) law is considered "illegal and subject to restriction, harassment or other punishment including coercion, forced closure, beatings ... and criminal prosecution," according to the 2009 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Another lawyer, Li Fangping, said Chinese officials base their opposition on national security concerns.
"For historical reasons, and because of the attention of the international community, religious freedom remains a sensitive topic. Even the Chinese media rarely expose religious activities," Mr. Li said.
"Religious cases are a matter of national security for the Chinese government. When you try to defend such cases, the government can interfere and bar you the access to the documents," he said.
According to the U.S. report, the Chinese government continues to persecute followers of the Falun Gong movement, which it banned in 1999.
More than one year after the Olympic Games there, which many believed would be an opportunity for human rights values to be advanced, the attorneys said they were skeptical.
"The government used the Games to improve its image and get international recognition," Mr. Li said. "But since the economic reforms in 1978 and China opening up, ordinary Chinese citizens are more eager to accept those universal values."
"There has not been substantial change at all before the Games, but in the long run China will change. Not by the Chinese government, but by its people," he said.
Despite difficulties, Mr. Jiang said lawyers handling human rights cases could promote change. "There are more and more lawyers like us in China, who try to make the government enforce the rule of law," he said.