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10 U.S. senators visit China amid crackdown

BEIJING - An unusually large group of 10 U.S. senators visited China on Wednesday amid a major crackdown by authorities on the country's embattled dissident community.

It was one of the largest and most senior Senatorial delegations ever to set foot in China. The visit had been in the works for some time, but was delayed by negotiations in Washington over the federal budget.

On Wednesday, members of the delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met Vice Premier Wang Qishan and central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan in Beijing to discuss trade and finance.

Details of the talks were not immediately released, but Wang said the size of the delegation showed the importance Washington placed on the bilateral relationship.

Reid said he expected the talks to be "free flowing."

The group was scheduled to meet Thursday with Vice President Xi Jinping, widely touted as China's next leader, and the head of China's rubber-stamp legislature, Wu Bangguo, before traveling on to the cities of Chengdu and Xi'an. Their visit was expected to last three days.

"During meetings with Chinese officials, the group will discuss issues including clean energy, trade issues, currency, foreign policy and human rights," the delegation said in a statement issued on its arrival in Hong Kong on Monday.

China's yawning trade surplus with the United States and accusations that it deliberately undervalues its currency, the yuan, to boost exports are expected to feature prominently in the talks.

Along with Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, the delegation includes Democratic senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois, along with Republicans Richard Shelby of Alabama and Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

Dozens of well-known Chinese lawyers and activists from across the country have vanished, been interrogated or criminally detained for subversion in the 2-month-old crackdown, apparently sparked by the Chinese government's fears of a Middle East-style anti-government protest movement.

Human rights groups say the crackdown is on a scale not seen in many years, with security forces employing arbitrary tactics to detain people in their homes in defiance of Chinese law. China has responded to complaints over the crackdown by accusing those detained, including internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, of seeking to use the law as cover for attacks on the ruling Communist Party.