Activists, stirred up by Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House, have vowed to disrupt the congenial atmosphere by hurling stinging criticisms at China's human-rights record and Internet-censorship practices.
The bilateral talks with President Bush will focus on a wide range of topics close to the hearts of both nations, including energy policies and trade issues. Human rights, an ever-present point of contention, also will be on the agenda as it is for every session of high-level talks between the U.S. and China.
"The current Chinese regime is one of the very worst violators of human rights in the world, and continues to commit every single day egregious crimes against its own citizens," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on human rights, during a hearing Wednesday on Internet censorship in China.
Charges by critics that several companies -- such as Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google -- have aided and abetted the Chinese government by acquiescing to censorship laws and providing evidence in trials against Chinese dissidents add another layer to the human-rights brouhaha surrounding Hu's visit.
With an enormous population of over 1.25 billion that experts expect will increase by 10 million people each year until the mid-21st century, China has become an irresistible lure to businesses around the world.
The Chinese Internet market alone is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing anywhere. More than 111 million Chinese use the Web, a number that is rapidly increasing and could surpass the number of U.S. Internet users in the not-too-distant future.
During hearings held in February by the House Subcommittee on human rights, the big three Internet companies said that adhering to local laws was a customary business practice.
At Wednesday's hearing, author Ethan Gutmann, former consultant to U.S. businesses operating in China, urged leading companies in the U.S. to form a coalition ready to pull out of China if Beijing does not end its censorship practices.
"The question that Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo should be focusing on is this: Will the Chinese Communist Party still be in power 10 years from now? How about 20 years? And who is my primary customer base, the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese people?" he said.
As Hu is making the rounds in the U.S., Yahoo once again has found itself in the hot seat after Reporters Without Borders (RWB) published documents it said prove that Yahoo provided information that resulted in the jailing of Jiang Lijun, a Chinese dissident.
Lijun, jailed in 2003, is serving a four-year sentence on charges of subversion, after being found guilty of publishing opinions online in favor of democracy. A translation of court documents indicated that the evidence used against Lijun included "e-mail account holder information provided by Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd."
"Little by little we are piecing together the evidence for what we have long suspected, that Yahoo is implicated in the arrest of most of the people that we have been defending," the group said in a statement.
However, RWB admits that it is not clear whether it was the testimony of a friend that had access to the e-mail account or the access granted by Yahoo that proved Lijun's undoing. The group said it is aware of 48 Internet dissidents and 32 journalists imprisoned in China reportedly for using the Internet to criticize the government and promote democracy.
Third Time 'Round
The allegations mark the third time Yahoo has been accused of cooperating with the Chinese government by providing information from an e-mail holder's account.
Previous cases involving Yahoo include that of journalist Shi Tao, sentenced to 10 years in prison for divulging state secrets abroad. The other was a case against a former civil servant found guilty in 2003 and sentenced to eight years in prison for "inciting subversion."
Yahoo, in its defense, has stated unequivocally that it does not condone the practices of the Chinese government.
"We condemn punishment for any activity internationally recognized as free expression, whether that punishment takes place in China or anywhere else in the world," said Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokesperson.
"While we absolutely believe companies have a responsibility to identify appropriate practices in each market in which they do business, we also believe there is a vital role for government-to-government discussion of the larger issue involved," she noted.