Chinese officials denied a visa to a top State Department envoy and refused to meet with her to discuss issues of religious freedom days before this week’s high-profile visit to Washington by China’s vice president, according to rights advocates and others.
Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, was scheduled to travel to China on Feb. 8, according to several rights advocates who were invited to brief her ahead of the visit. But as the date drew near, Chinese leaders refused to grant her meetings with government officials.
They then cited her lack of scheduled meetings as a reason for denying her visa application, according to the advocates and a congressional aide, who were briefed on the situation.
The disclosure comes one day into the diplomatically sensitive visit by Xi Jinping — China’s presumptive next president — during a week that the Obama administration hopes will help ease tense U.S.-China relations.
Rights advocates working with Cook’s office say that she and her staff were told by superiors in the Obama administration to avoid talking publicly about her canceled trip in the days before Xi’s visit.
The State Department declined to comment about the matter Tuesday. When asked about the trip last week, on the day Cook was supposed to leave, spokesman Anthony Pahigian said: “She has no specific dates at this time. We are engaging with the Chinese government to find a mutually convenient time.”
President Obama, who met with Xi on Tuesday, has been criticized by human rights groups, religious leaders and Republican lawmakers who say he has not been forceful enough in challenging China on issues such as its crackdown on Tibetans and the recent imprisonment of several religious and dissident leaders.
Xi, during a State Department luncheon Tuesday, defended China’s record on human rights, saying that his country “has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements” in the past 30 years.
“Of course,” he added, “there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday on Cook’s visa request.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who supported Cook’s nomination, called the visa refusal “outrageous” and said the White House’s silence on the issue could have long-term consequences.
“What happens with China could have impact when we try to go to Egypt, Vietnam, all these other places,” he said. “People will look at that ambassadorship and say, ‘How effective or important is this office?’ ”
The post was created in 1998 to be the highest government official focused on promoting religious freedom, often in nascent democracies and under authoritarian regimes. In China, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Muslims and Buddhists all report varying forms of government repression.
After Obama took office, religious groups criticized him for not quickly naming an ambassador to address these issues. When he made an appointment, in 2010, he upset some activists again with his choice of Cook, a former New York Police Department chaplain and well-known motivational speaker without traditional diplomatic credentials. The Senate approved her, after a long delay, last year.
The quiet handling of Cook’s visa denial this month revived concerns about Obama’s approach to issues of religious freedom in China.
“The lack of reaction from the administration to the visa denial goes to show how important the issue is to the administration. There’s been no outrage, no statement from the White House,” said Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
Controversy over the visa decision is likely to displease Chinese officials, who have worked for months to plan a heavily scripted visit crucial to Xi’s ascent to China’s presidency next year. No news conferences with Xi are planned during his visit to the United States this week. And Chinese officials have been careful to avoid several groups protesting his visit.
Instead, Xi spent Tuesday in closed meetings at the White House, the Pentagon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Cook, in a transcribed State Department interview on Jan. 23, confirmed her plans to go to China. On Feb. 3, she met with leaders from ethnic, religious and nongovernmental organizations to hear their suggestions about how to press their concerns during the trip.
According to several people present at the meeting, Cook heard from leaders of the Tibetan movement, Falun Gong, Uighurs and supporters of Christian evangelicals who worship at unregistered, house-based churches.
Also present was Rashad Hussain, Obama’s special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Cook and Hussain talked to the group about the possibility of traveling to Xinjiang, a politically sensitive region of China currently under lockdown by the government following unrest among Muslim Uighurs.
On the eve of her trip, still with no visa, Cook held a conference call asking advice from three religious leaders sent to China in 1998 by President Bill Clinton: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Rabbi Arthur Schneier and Don Argue, a Christian religious-freedom advocate.
Several activists urged Cook to go to China even if no officials would meet with her, saying she could visit with university students or worship in one of the banned churches. That became a moot point once Chinese officials told her staff that “it’s not a convenient time to come,” according to the religious rights advocates.
Diplomats in Cook’s position have encountered problems before, but denying a visa to a sitting U.S. ambassador represents one of China’s strongest rebuffs to date, experts say.
Tom Farr, who served under the previous two administrations as director of the office now run by Cook, said he visited China in March 2001. “After the Bush White House issued a report on human rights, all my appointments got canceled, but not my visa,” he said.
Staff writers Dan Zak and David Nakamura contributed to this report.