Sigmar Gabriel shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang ahead of a meeting at the Great Hall on Tuesday. Photo: REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

Germany’s outspoken economy minister, visiting China, met activists on Wednesday who have criticized the Beijing government, and urged it to free jailed human rights lawyers.

President Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened control over Chinese civil society, saying it needs to increase security in what activists say is the most sweeping crackdown on dissent in decades.

Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is deputy to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, met nine activists at the German Embassy in Beijing, including Sakharov Prize winner Hu Jia; Chen Guiqui, the wife of a jailed lawyer; and the writer and blogger Murong Xuecun.

“These were all people who have had difficult experiences with the state apparatus,” Gabriel told reporters accompanying him during a stopover in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.

He said he was urging Chinese authorities to release dozens of human rights lawyers jailed by security forces for alleged subversion. It was unclear whether Gabriel had already discussed this with Chinese officials during his trip.

“We hope that these lawyers will be released,” said Gabriel. He would make this position clear in forthcoming talks with Chinese officials, “and I will also write.”

China routinely rejects foreign criticism of its rights record and says that guaranteeing things like the right to education and freedom from hunger underscore its commitment to a broader definition of human rights.

On Tuesday, Gabriel drove home German concerns about Beijing’s trade policies in talks with Chinese government officials marked by tensions over Chinese corporate takeovers of German technology companies.

(Reporting by Gernot Heller; writing by Madeline Chambers; editing by MarkHeinrich)