German deputy leader, in China, urges release of human rights lawyers

German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ahead of their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 01 November 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool (Reuters)

CHENGDU, China (Reuters) - Germany's outspoken economy minister, visiting China, on Wednesday met activists who have criticized the Beijing government and urged it to free jailed human rights lawyers. Human rights is a sensitive subject in China where President Xi Jinping's administration has tightened control over civil society, saying it needs to increase security in what activists say is the most sweeping crackdown on dissent in decades. Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel met nine activists at the German Embassy in Beijing, including Sakharov Prize winner Hu Jia; Chen Guiqui, the wife of a jailed lawyer; and writer and blogger Murong Xuecun. "These were all people who have had difficult experiences with the state apparatus," Gabriel, the deputy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters accompanying him during a stopover in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. He said he was urging Chinese authorities to release dozens of human rights lawyers jailed by security forces for alleged subversion. It was unclear whether Gabriel had already discussed this with Chinese officials during his trip. "We hope that these lawyers will be released," said Gabriel. He would make this position clear in forthcoming talks with Chinese officials "and I will also write", said the minister. China routinely rejects foreign criticism of its rights record and says that guaranteeing things like the right to education and freedom from hunger underscore its commitment to a broader definition of human rights. On Tuesday, Gabriel drove home German concerns about Beijing's trade policies in talks with Chinese government officials marked by tensions over Chinese corporate takeovers of German technology companies. (Reporting by Gernot Heller; writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by Mark Heinrich)