Washington (CNN)House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, an outspoken critic of human rights violations in China, unleashed her criticism of the country as President Barack Obama hosted the Chinese president in Washington on Friday.
Nancy Pelosi: Important to speak out against Chinese repression
"Just because China is a big economy and because we have a big relationship doesn't mean that the challenge to our conscience, that the behavior toward dissidents, religious dissidents, all kinds of dissidents -- if we don't speak out against that in China, we lose all moral authority to speak out it in any other country that is not so large in its economy and such an important relationship to us," Pelosi said Friday in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper.
Pelosi also avoided directly criticizing Obama when asked, in a "State of the Union" interview set to air in full on Sunday, whether she was disappointed in the red carpet treatment Chinese President Xi Jinping is enjoying during his visit to Washington -- a visit that includes a lavish state dinner at the White House Friday night.
Pelosi declined an invitation to attend the state dinner, with her office citing a previously scheduled commitment.
Instead, the top House Democrat played up her role in countering the red carpet glitz, pointing to her attendance at a breakfast Friday morning with dissidents struggling against Chinese government oppression.
Pelosi said she attended that event to "make sure that the dissidents and the prisoners of conscience knew that they were not forgotten."
And it was also a message to the Chinese government, Pelosi added.
"It's almost getting worse in China from when I was there as to a repression. And the numbers of people who are in prison because they are lawyers who represent dissents and the rest is astounding. Either threatened or imprisoned or beaten," she said. "This is a big issue."
The comments are not new for the top Democrat who has been outspoken about Chinese human rights violations throughout her career.
Perhaps most notably, Pelosi in 1991 during a visit to China took to Beijing's Tiananmen Square and unfurled a banner memorializing protesters who died there when the Chinese government cracked down on protests in 1989.
Pelosi has attended every previous Obama state dinner except for one, when British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Washington in 2012. She did attend the State Dinner for former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2011.