The outgoing United States Ambassador to Beijing urged China on Thursday to respect the rights of peaceful political activists.
Gary Locke made the call at his final news conference as ambassador on following a two and a half year tenure that included two serious diplomatic crises as well as a major expansion of trade and travel links.
“We believe that freedom of expression is a universal right,” he said. “And we very are concerned about the arrest and detentions of people who are engaged in peaceful advocacy.”
One of the cases Washington is concerned about is the case of Ilham Tohti.
Tohti is an economics professor and outspoken advocate for the Uighur Muslim minority who was arrested on Tuesday after being taken from his home one month ago.
China should value not just the economic welfare of its people, but also their freedom of speech, assembly and religion, Locke said.
“There is a great deal of tension in the Xinjiang area, and a lot of violence has occurred. We deplore all forms of violence committed by any person. But we also believe that China needs to focus on respect for human rights,” he told journalists at the US Embassy in eastern Beijing.
“But human rights is more than just economic prosperity and economic conditions of people, but also fundamental universal rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, ability to practice one’s own religion,” he added.
China’s communist government routinely criticises such remarks as interference in its internal politics.
63 year-old Locke was the first Chinese-American to serve as ambassador to Beijing.
Known for his affable, non-confrontational style, Locke placed a high priority on improving embassy efficiency and facilitating bilateral trade at a time when exchanges are growing rapidly.
He also oversaw the defusing of two of the most delicate diplomatic episodes between the countries in years.
In February 2012, Wang Lijun, the police chief in the western city of Chongqing, fled to a US consulate in southwest China with information about the murder of a British businessman, setting off China’s biggest political scandal in years.
Wang’s flight led to the removal and subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment for corruption of Chongqing’s leader, Bo Xilai, formerly one of China’s most powerful politicians.
Just two months later, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and was given shelter in the US Embassy in Beijing, where he remained for six days before being allowed to leave the country with his family to study in New York.
Locke, a Democrat, said he had no plans for the immediate future but would stump for American political candidates and eventually return to China in a private capacity to work on business projects.
His replacement, former Montana state senator Max Baucus, was sworn in last week and is expected to arrive within coming weeks.
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