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New questions arise over Trump's approach to China's human rights issues

The White House's relative silence on the state of human rights in China is back in the spotlight following Ivanka Trump's link to spotty Chinese labor policies and ahead of the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

President Donald Trump interacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 6, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

While U.S. policy on the matter has long remained non-confrontational, "the current dismissive attitude towards human rights is jarring," Margaret Lewis, a professor specializing in China's legal system at Seton Hall University, said in a Wednesday note published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

On June 4, 1989, mainland troops violently targeted pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's famed Tiananmen Square and to-date, the detention of political activists and enforced disappearance of critics remain among the top social challenges weighing on the world's second-largest economy.

Other issues include poor employment standards, limited freedom of expression through strict online censorship and media controls. This week, China Labor Watch activist Hua Haifeng was arrested and accused of illegal surveillance after investigating alleged conditions of low pay and potential misuse of student interns at a Chinese company that produces Ivanka Trump-brand shoes.

Around 250 rights lawyers and activists have been targeted in a crackdown by the Chinese government that started in July 2015, according to Amnesty International.

China's new cybersecurity law leaves companies with uncertainty

In the run-up to President Donald Trump's April 7 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, many wondered whether the unpredictable leader would stress the need for Beijing to embrace international human rights standards, having already upset the mainland on a myriad of other issues such as trade.

Following the closely-watched summit, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a media briefing that human rights were "embedded in every discussion" and guided Trump's view on bilateral economic, military and foreign policy cooperation.

But as Trump strikes a conciliatory tone with Beijing to resolve the North Korea conflict following months of anti-China remarks, the White House has yet to strongly address the thorny issue. The new U.S. ambassador to China, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who claims to have known Xi Jinping for three decades, has promised to prioritize human rights — but doubts still remain.

"Will freedom of expression be a central component of discussions regarding cybersecurity? And will protections for the accused be at the forefront of conversations regarding repatriating fugitives as part of bilateral law enforcement efforts?" questioned Lewis.