Sydney: Australian Premier Julia Gillard must set an international example and tackle China on human rights rather than sidestepping the issue in favour of improving trade ties, Human Rights Watch said.
Gillard makes her first visit to China, Australia`s top trading partner, next week as the communist country wages a serious crackdown on dissent, highlighted by the recent detention of famed artist Ai Weiwei.
She has urged the Chinese not to take "backward steps", but the New York-based Human Rights Watch said it suspected the Prime Minister would not pursue that agenda when she faces the giant nation`s leaders.
"Prime Minister Gillard has spoken up about Australians concerns from Canberra; now the test is whether she will do so publicly in Beijing," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said on Saturday.
"The Chinese government is betting that Australia will swap silence on this current crackdown for the promise of improved bilateral trade ties. It’s up to Gillard to prove it wrong."
The Australian leader will be walking a delicate tightrope during her April 25-27 trip when she meets President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
China is Australia`s largest trading partner -- worth some USD 50.6 billion annually -- and Gillard is expected to focus on business, but in the past she has also expressed concern about the dissident crackdown.
Earlier this month she met Beijing`s fourth-in-command Jia Qinglin on his visit to Australia and told him that "we do not want to see China taking backward steps on human rights".
Human Rights Watch said it had sent Gillard a letter urging her to publicly press for an end to systemic human rights violations during her meetings with China`s top leadership.
"Prime Minister Gillard should publicly express the international community`s dismay at the recent spike in repression in China since February," said Richardson.
"And by engaging the Chinese government on the specifics of that repression, she can set a needed example of leadership on international human rights norms and mechanisms."
The group said that since February 16 at least 39 lawyers, civil society activists, and bloggers have been criminally detained by state authorities while at least 18 others were victims of enforced disappearance.
It added that between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures ranging from police summonses to house arrest.
"The government has also tightened Internet censorship, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing," it said.
The crackdown has been an apparent bid to avert any political movement similar to the "Jasmine" revolutions that have rocked the Arab world.
Gillard is currently in Japan and heads to South Korea later Saturday before jetting to China.