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Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs, is scheduled to deliver a speech at forum on Wednesday as the most senior Obama administration official at the forum.

An official in Mr. Hormats’ office declined detailed comment ahead of the speech, the text of which he said would be released afterward.

But he denied that the State Department is cosying up to the Chinese, saying Mr. Hormats’ remarks would be “frank.”

Human rights advocates urged Mr. Hormats to be forthright, and called on U.S. participants to press their Chinese partners to be more transparent.

“It’s unfortunate that the ISC isn’t prepared to engage the press,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch’s business and human rights program. “They should be pressured to talk more openly.”

Ms. MacKinnon, who has attended the previous forums, said it is useful to meet “far behind closed doors” because, in off-the-record discussions, Chinese officials, executives and academic sometimes speak more freely.

“People [in China] are very concerned about being quoted and getting in trouble,” she said. “Take away that fear and you can have a more nuanced conversation.”

She said she believes Microsoft and other firms see the forum as a chance to educate Chinese officials about the realities of the political and policy process in the United States.

“It’s sort of ‘welcome to our world,’ where you’ve got human rights activitists and congressional hearings,” she said.

“My impression is that Microsoft is having a tough time in China right now,” she said. “This helps them explain [to Chinese officials] why they can’t just behave like a Chinese company.”