U.S. Diplomat Sharply Criticizes China on Rights

 Published: 4/6/2011 1:04:00 AM GMT
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SHANGHAI — The departing American ambassador to China, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., criticized this country’s human rights record on Wednesday in some of the sharpest public comments here yet by an United States official since the Chinese government began a harsh crackdown on dissent this year.

Using a high-profile annual lecture on Chinese-American relations to make his final public address as ambassador, Mr. Huntsman said bluntly that prominent Chinese activists had been unfairly detained or jailed, naming Liu Xiaobo, last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “subversion,” and Ai Weiwei, the Beijing artist who was taken into custody Sunday.

Mr. Huntsman also accused China of wrongly imprisoning Feng Xue, an American geologist who was gathering information on the oil industry and accused of stealing “state secrets.”

“The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur,” said Mr. Huntsman, who leave his diplomatic post this month amid speculation he may seek the Republican nomination for president.

Foreign diplomats normally avoid such open criticism of Chinese policies and actions here, to avoid complicating relations and embarrassing top officials. That restraint is usually especially in play in forums drawing an elite domestic audience or major media attention.

But Mr. Huntsman’s speech, made one day after the State Department called for Mr. Ai’s immediate release, praised the artist and other prominent activists, saying they “challenged the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases at all times.”

In Berlin, Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest Mr. Ai’s detention. American and European Union officials have expressed concern about his safety.

Mr. Ai was detained Sunday while trying to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong. His studio and offices were raided and his wife and a number of staff members were taken to police stations for questioning. All but one was released.

Mr. Ai’s detention appears to be part of the government’s attempt to stifle dissent among activists who may be trying to emulate the protests and demonstrations in recent months in North Africa and the Middle East. Chinese security officers have detained activists, tightened controls over the Internet and the Chinese news media and harassed and threatened foreign journalists.

In his speech, Mr. Huntsman seemed to hint at the recent clampdown by saying, “cutting off dialogue and suppressing the news media do not help.” He later added, “We cannot move forward if, when differences emerge, only one of us is fully engaged.”

Several prominent Chinese scholars were in the audience at the Four Seasons Hotel and even addressed the audience after Mr. Huntsman spoke, but they only gingerly mentioned that there were differences over human rights, with one scholar suggesting that China’s conception of human rights was improving the livelihoods of peasants.

Mr. Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and a fluent Chinese speaker and Asia hand, was appointed by President Obama in 2009.

Ian Johnson contributed reporting from Berlin.

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