As Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Obama held what they described as "candid" discussions on human rights Wednesday, skeletons from the Chinese leader's closet literally danced in the street outside the White House.
Dozens of colorful Tibetan protesters lined Pennsylvania Avenue along the north lawn, chanting "Shame on Hu Jintao," "Stop the killings in Tibet" and "President Obama, speak for Tibet." Some held signs with a familiar litany of grievances against the Chinese, including censorship, imprisonment of political critics, and oppression of minority groups.
Nearby in Lafayette Park, two 10-foot-tall skeleton figures painted in traditional Tibetan colors parried alongside a slithering green human dragon.
They represented "the Tibetans who have died because of his [Hu Jintao's] ultra-violent rule in Tibet and are coming back to haunt him," said Stephanie Rogers, a grassroots organizer for Students for a Free Tibet. "They're not going away until he frees political prisoners."
The group says Chinese authorities have imprisoned more than 800 Tibetan political activists and 60 Tibetan writers, artists and intellectuals deemed to be undermining government policies. Author and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, also remains in a Chinese prison.
"When you allow someone like Hu Jintao to come to the states, you're also welcoming the company and what he represents. You're associating yourself with what he has taken part in," said Tenzin Samphel, 24, of Fairfax, Va. "There's nothing wrong with China and the U.S. doing business together in the name of trade and economics. But it can't be at the expense of human rights."
Inside the White House at a joint press conference, Obama acknowledged that human rights issues have been a source of tension between the U.S. and China, but said it shouldn't prevent cooperation.
"We have some views as Americans about the universality of certain rights… we think are very important and transcend cultures," he said. "We can engage and discuss these issues in a frank and candid way."
Obama suggested China had improved its record on human rights over the past 30 years and said he expects further change in the decades ahead.
President Hu Jintao acknowledged "a lot" still needs to be done to improve human rights in his country, which is rapidly growing as an economic power. "We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of our people and promote democracy and rule of law," Hu said.
But the rhetoric did little to allay the concerns of activists for Tibetan independence, human rights in China, and minority groups, such as the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement China outlawed in 1999. They called on Obama to be bold in his dialogue with Hu.
"The persecution of Falun Gong is very brutal in China, and I come here to appeal to Obama to help stop the persecution of Falun Gong in China," said Xing Wei, 55, through a translator, Mindy Ge.
"We urge him to raise the issues of human rights publicly and virogously," said Tenzin Dolkar of New York. "I am Tibetan. I was born in exile in South India. And for me personally it really is an issue of safeguarding the future generations of Tibetans so they can be in their own homeland and I can be in my own homeland."
The Obama administration has faced some criticism for not appearing more forceful in protesting human rights abuses in autocratic countries like China and Russia. But Obama has insisted the "frank and candid assessments" of China's record on human rights will continue.
Several top lawmakers have refused to attend tonight's state dinner with Hu. Republican House Speaker John Boehner will not attend, nor will Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who earlier Wednesday called Hu a "dictator."
China has largely rejected criticism on human rights and defended its domestic policies as matters of sovereignty that should not be subjected to outside interference.