BEIJING— Gary Locke, the departing U.S. Ambassador to China, urged Beijing to respect the rights of peaceful activists at a farewell news conference Thursday. He also spoke about growing tensions in the East China Sea and the need for China and Japan to use diplomacy to reconcile their differences.
Locke said the United States is very concerned about the arrest of Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti and others in China.
"We believe that freedom of expression is a universal right and we very much are concerned about any arrests and detentions of people who are engaged in peaceful advocacy," he said.
Tohti is an economics professor and member of the Uighur Muslim minority from China's Western region of Xinjiang. Authorities took Tohti from his home in Beijing last month. On Tuesday, he was officially charged with inciting separatism.
He said that while there has been much violence in Xinjiang, China needs to focus on respecting human rights.
Chinese authorities say they are doing just that.
Officials insist that terrorists and Muslim separatists are the ones responsible for a recent surge in violence in Xinjiang. That includes an attack on Tiananmen Square late last year that killed five and injured dozens of others.
The government says it has raised living standards in places such as Xinjiang and brought prosperity. Critics say religious restrictions on minorities and other social problems brought on by government policies are feeding tensions.
Locke says the United States deplores all forms of violence committed by any person.
"Human rights is more than just economic prosperity and improvement in economic conditions of people, but also fundamental universal rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the ability to practice ones own religion," he added.
The issue of human rights is one of many that Locke has focused on during his time in Beijing. Locke is the first Chinese American to serve as ambassador in the capital of the world's second largest economy.
A former commerce minister in the United States and two-term governor, Locke says people-to-people exchanges have grown significantly during his tenure in China, as have American exports to the country.
He did not deny, however, that the relationship was still fraught with challenges.
Locke said if there is a problem with the relationship it is that there is still a lack of mutual understanding - particularly regarding the massive challenges China faces.
"Problems and challenges that are so enormous, so complex that it would be very, very difficult to even address in the United States," said Locke.
During his time in office, Beijing and Washington found a way to compromise over the case of a blind activist seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Locke says the flight of the former police chief of ousted political star Bo Xilai to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and the way the incident was handled has perhaps had an impact on the trajectory of China's politics.
China's role in the region has taken dramatic shifts over the past two years as well, with tensions rising dramatically with its neighbor Japan, an ally of the United States.
Locke urged the two sides to use diplomatic channels to help avoid any unintended incidents that could have severe consequences. He also noted that while relations between the United States and Japan were rough in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the two found a way to reconcile their differences.
"The key is that we all learn from our mistakes and that we learn from those mistakes, acknowledge those mistakes. Study history so we can avoid repeating those mistakes," explained Locke. "And it's also important that we be able to have reconciliation."
Locke departs Beijing this Saturday with his wife. He is being replaced by former U.S. Senator Max Baucus.