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UN's Ban Tells China Civil Society, Free Media are Crucial

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, speaks during a joint press conference with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on July 7, 2016.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told China's leaders on Thursday that a flourishing civil society and free media are key to China's development, on one of his last visits to Beijing as U.N. leader.

Ban spoke while standing next to Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who last month berated a Canadian journalist for asking a question about China's human rights record during a news conference in Canada.

"As China continues along the path of transformation and reform, I encourage China's leaders to create the space needed for the civil society to play its crucial role,'' Ban said, as Wang looked down at his lectern or stared ahead, expressionless.

Ban added that environmental activists, human rights lawyers and defenders and others "can act as a catalyst for social progress and economic goals.''

"Along with a free and independent media they can help ensure accountability, thereby helping the state to evolve better and strengthening its standing in the eyes of the people,'' Ban said during the tightly managed news conference, in which only two questions were allowed.

While China's news media have long been directed by the ruling Communist Party, President Xi Jinping signaled a further tightening of control in February when he stated that absolute loyalty to the party was the media's highest priority.

This week marks the first anniversary of a crackdown in China on human rights lawyers and activists in which more than 200 were detained or questioned. One year on, around two dozen are still detained, including several who could face life imprisonment after being charged with subverting state power.

Ban, whose second term as U.N. secretary-general runs out at the end of the year, said, "The world will look to China to complement its remarkable economic progress by giving citizens a full say and a role in the political life of their country.''

The pair also discussed tensions involving the South China Sea ahead of a ruling expected next week by an international arbitration panel on the validity of China's claims to virtually all of the sea. Beijing has not participated in the case, which was brought by the Philippines.

The U.N. leader said that all countries with rival claims to the South China Sea should settle their differences peacefully and "avoid any escalation or misunderstandings that could put security and development in the region at risk.''

Wang told reporters that the Chinese government also wants a ``peaceful resolution,'' but condemned "any effort to reject dialogue, or to unilaterally initiate arbitration without the consent of the other party.''

"This approach will not help to bring out a peaceful resolution of the disputes, on the contrary it will only escalate the disputes and the tensions and should be resisted by all countries and people who uphold justice in the world,'' Wang said.

In an opening statement to reporters, Wang said Ban had been "an outstanding secretary-general,'' and that eight candidates to be his replacement had traveled to Beijing to canvass support, including one on Wednesday. He didn't name the candidates.

Ban met with Xi later Thursday and is to meet Premier Li Keqiang on Friday.