U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Uzra Zeya speaks to reporters at a news briefing on the latest U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, in Beijing. (Didi Tang/AP)

U.S. officials said Friday that human rights abuses in China are worsening and that their latest talks with the Chinese government on the issue “fell short of expectations.”

Of particular concern, U.S. diplomats said, are the growing number of instances of officials targeting the families and lawyers of human rights activists to try to silence them.

“This is a worrisome trend and one we’ve raised at senior levels of the Chinese government,” said Uzra Zeya, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. During a news conference in Beijing, she described such actions as “extralegal punishment and measures that are inconsistent with China’s own laws.”

During this week’s annual U.S.-China meeting, Zeya said, she and other U.S. officials raised a long list of concerns, including worsening persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, journalists and online activists, as well as restrictions on universal freedoms and lack of rule of law.

It has become increasingly difficult in recent years to engage China on human rights, according to U.S., Chinese and international human rights activists. As the country’s global power has expanded, its government has become more assertive about pressuring foreign governments, businesses, organizations and journalists not to bring up issues such as human rights, which Chinese officials see as both potentially embarrassing and no one else’s business.

China has long dismissed U.S. criticism on human rights as biased and unfounded. Of late, it has started releasing its own report of alleged U.S. human rights abuses on the same day in spring that the State Department publishes its annual worldwide rights survey. In this year’s version in April, Chinese officials cited U.S. failures to protect its citizens from gun violence, surveillance practices and military actions as human rights violations.

In describing China’s recent and increasing harassment of activists’ families, U.S. officials said they raised the examples of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose wife has been under house arrest and whose brother was recently sentenced to prison, and blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, whose nephew has been imprisoned while other relatives have found their home frequently under attack.

At the meeting in the southern city of Kunming, U.S. officials said, they also brought up several specific cases of well-known dissidents who are believed to be imprisoned by the government, including human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong. His arrest last month prompted open letters of protest by liberal intellectuals in China.

Other cases specifically discussed were those of Tibetan documentary filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen, government petitioner Ni Yulan, Mongolian dissident Hada and Uighur journalist Gheyret Niyaz.

“In some cases, we were able to receive some information, but I would say overall it fell short of our expectations,” Zeya said, declining to go into specifics of the discussion.

Some activists expressed concern that the annual meetings on human rights the United States and European Union have set up with China could prompt Beijing to limit discussion of rights abuses to those particular talks, keeping the issue from bleeding into other arenas of dialogue between higher-level officials.

“While the U.S. government goes into it to raise issues and make progress and to some extent demonstrate it is doing something on human rights, the Chinese have the exclusive goal of limiting U.S. intervention on human rights issues,” said Sophie Richardson of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Their hope is that this is the one time of the year to raise this issue up and it’s not to be brought up otherwise.”

Responding to those concerns, Zeya said it is “critically important that this is not a once-a-year exercise but that it’s an issue that’s raised continually in our engagement with Chinese government.”

She noted that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and President Obama have brought up the subject at recent meetings.