WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chinese dissidents asked on Thursday that some of them be allowed to accompany President Bill Clinton on his visit to Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where student demonstrators were massacred nine years ago.
The exiles, members of a newly formed coalition called the Free China Forum, said they wanted to lay a wreath at the site of the pro-democracy protest that shook the Chinese government before a deadly army crackdown on June 4, 1989.
Shengde Lian, a student leader jailed for two years after the demonstration, said the group of more than 100 exiled Chinese dissidents and political activists would ask that Clinton meet them before he leaves for China on June 24.
"We hope he might invite some of us who were there to return to Tiananmen Square so that we might bring a wreath made by our members and leave it as a memorial to all those in China who have suffered and died in the cause of freedom," he said.
The Tiananmen anniversary was marked on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington as U.S. lawmakers and human rights activists joined the dissidents in calling on Clinton to rethink his trip to China.
A House panel also used the occasion to hold a hearing on the alleged sale of body parts by the Chinese government, the third time congressional committees heard testimony about Beijing's organ-harvesting practices.
But the focus remained on the political sensitivity of Clinton's visit, the first by a U.S. president since hundreds of thousands of people took part in the student-led protests.
Clinton's plans have drawn added scrutiny because of charges that the Chinese funnelled money to the Democratic National Committee and that the administration allowed sensitive military technology to be transferred to China.
Debate grew louder and more polarised after Clinton said on Wednesday he would extend favourable trade status to China for another year, despite protests from Republicans over the influence-buying allegations.
Chinese dissidents Harry Wu, Wei Jingsheng, and a recently released Tiananmen Square student leader, Wang Dan, made impassioned speeches in multiple appearances on Thursday, imploring Clinton not to go to China on June 24.
But Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi of California told a news conference: "I think the president is going to go no matter what we say."
Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri said he would seek a Senate vote on Clinton's trip by introducing a resolution calling for it to be delayed.
"The Clinton administration's policy with respect to China is one of weakness across the board," Ashcroft said. "A summit trip at this time would be an intolerable surrender of our values."
With the president's trip seen certain, opponents targeted a planned official welcoming ceremony outside China's Great Hall of the People, in plain view of highly symbolic Tiananmen Square.
"President Clinton will dishonour the memory of thousands of courageous Chinese students who stood for democracy if he visits Tiananmen Square," said Gary Bauer, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
The House of Representatives is set to vote on a nonbinding resolution urging Clinton not to be officially received in Tiananmen Square, the symbolism of which has resonated among Democrats and Republicans.
"During his 1992 campaign, President Clinton called China's leaders 'the butchers of Beijing,"' Representative Dan Burton said. "As he stands there with them in Tiananmen Square, I hope he remembers these words."
"He should not even go at all," the Indiana Republican added.
Democrats also joined the call for Clinton to sidestep such an emotionally charged appearance. "We must insist the president not be formally received there," Pelosi said.
Sen. Paul Wellstone suggested a compromise.
"As the president heads to China and Tiananmen Square, I call upon him to visit family members of the Tiananmen massacre, many of whom still face harassment and persecution," the Minnesota Democrat said.
Wu told reporters the United States had a responsibility to promote progress in China, but lamented an American policy that he said focused on business and trade.
"The leader of the free world, unwilling to see a foreign policy injure commercial interests, has decided to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to human rights abuses in China," Wu said.