CHENGDU, China — US Vice President Joe Biden witnessed China's economic awakening at first hand with a visit to the boom town of Chengdu on Saturday, as an apparent crackdown on dissent accompanied his visit.
Biden headed southwest to the manufacturing hub after talks in Beijing during which leaders of the world's second largest economy expressed confidence in the ability of the US to overcome its present fiscal difficulties.
Human rights activists said authorities were carrying out a heavy-handed clampdown on dissenting voices coinciding with Biden's trip.
In Chengdu, a city of 14 million people, the US vice president will share an informal meal with his counterpart Xi Jinping -- who is slated to become China's top leader next year -- and address students at Sichuan University.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, where nearly 200 of the Fortune 500 largest firms in the world have invested.
He will also witness reconstruction efforts following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left over 87,000 people dead or missing.
In a Friday meeting with Biden, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao expressed confidence in the US economy after the historic downgrade of the United States' top-notch credit rating by Standard & Poor's earlier this month.
China is the largest foreign holder of US debt, and Biden has used his first official visit to the country since becoming vice president to reassure its leaders their massive investment remains safe.
"In spite of the difficulties facing the US economy at present, I have full confidence that the United States will overcome these difficulties and get its economy back on the track of healthy growth," Wen told Biden.
"It is important that you've sent a very clear message to the Chinese public that the United States will keep its word and obligations with regard to its government debt."
China and the United States have signed deals worth nearly $1 billion during Biden's trip, according to a US official who requested anonymity.
The Chinese leadership has also pledged to work with Washington to bolster global economic recovery, despite signs the United States is facing a deepening recession and as Europe scrambles to overcome a debilitating debt crisis.
Biden's visit is also aimed partly at building ties with Xi, who remains virtually unknown in US policy circles.
It comes amid growing concern in the United States over China's rights record.
Washington this week appealed to Beijing to free prominent rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has defended some of China's most vulnerable people including Christians and coal miners, and has not been heard of since last year.
But police have stepped up surveillance on dissidents and warned them against making any high profile protests or attempting to meet Biden during his five-day visit, rights activists said.
"The Chinese government has been pulling out all the stops to intimidate any and all dissidents, human rights lawyers and social activists from taking any high profile actions," Phelim Kine, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
"The word has gone out that they should keep a very low profile... and that any attempt at such a meeting (with Biden) would carry reprisals."
Biden did raise human rights concerns during his meetings with Chinese leaders, US officials said, but they refused to go into details of whether any individual cases were brought up.
"Yesterday (Friday), state security police began following me," Li Yu, a democracy activist and outspoken blogger in Sichuan province, told AFP.
"I don't know why they are following me, but I can't help to think that it is because the US vice president is visiting."
Li said other political activists in Sichuan were facing similar police surveillance, while guests at Biden's Chengdu hotel were vetted by a beefed-up security presence that included metal detectors and x-ray bag scanners.
Meanwhile prominent human rights lawyers Teng Biao and Liu Xiaoyuan declined to comment to AFP on Biden's visit, saying they had been told by the authorities not to give interviews to foreign media.
Following Biden's stop-over in Sichuan, he will visit Mongolia and close US ally Japan.
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