WASHINGTON - The White House expressed "deep concern" Thursday about the treatment of human rights advocates in China, just days before President Barack Obama visits Beijing.
National Security Advisor Susan Rice made the comments as she met American and Chinese rights advocates, a White House statement said, noting "they discussed the deterioration of China's human rights situation."
Earlier this week, top American diplomat John Kerry said the relationship between the United States and China, the world's top two economies, was the "most consequential" in the world today, warning it needed to be "carefully managed."
But the two major powers have clashed repeatedly in recent times, with Beijing last month warning Washington to keep its nose out of the democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong for weeks.
Rice and the rights advocates discussed "prospects for reform, and recommendations on how the United States can constructively encourage improvements in human rights conditions in China," said the White House statement, released just as Kerry flew into China.
"National Security Advisor Rice expressed the administration's deep concern regarding the treatment of human rights defenders.
"Ambassador Rice emphasised the United States view that the advancement of human rights and the rule of law supports stability and prosperity in all countries, including China."
Obama visits Beijing from November 10 to 12 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and is expected to hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines.
Last month, Secretary of State Kerry and a top Chinese official had "candid exchanges" over several contentious issues dogging relations between Washington and Beijing, including human rights.
The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, cyberspying and disputes in the South China Sea -- all areas where the two nations have clashed -- were on the weighty agenda in talks between Kerry and visiting Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
The pair covered bilateral and global issues, such as Ebola, North Korea and Iran's nuclear programme.
Those talks between the pair were designed to lay the groundwork for Obama's visit.
Speaking at the time, one US official said human rights in China -- a consistent bone of contention between Washington and authorities in Beijing -- was discussed, as was the situation in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory.
Kerry flew to Beijing to join Asia-Pacific foreign ministers ahead of the APEC summit hosted by Xi.
The China trip will offer some respite for Obama from domestic ills after his Democrats suffered a crushing defeat and lost their majority in the Senate to the Republicans in midterm elections this week.
Obama though will be under pressure to discuss the plight of rights defenders in China when he meets Xi.
Xi has repeatedly vowed to combat rampant graft in the face of public anger in China over the issue.
But the ruling communist party has cracked down on activists pursuing the same goals, seeing independently organised groups as a challenge to its tight grip on power, and rights advocates complain of a deteriorating climate of oppression.