BEIJING — Outgoing US Ambassador Gary Locke broached some of China’s most sensitive topics in his last public appearance here, urging Chinese authorities Thursday to improve human rights conditions, repair rapidly deteriorating relations with Japan, and address growing distrust of the party among China’s wealthy.
‘‘We very much are concerned about the arrests and detentions of people who are engaged in peaceful advocacy,’’ Locke said in a farewell press conference, mentioning by name an outspoken minority scholar who was arrested and charged Tuesday with ‘‘separatism’’ by Chinese authorities.
US officials are ‘‘very concerned’’ about professor Ilham Tohti, an advocate among China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
The Chinese government has not reacted well to Locke’s parting criticism. Responding to similar words by Locke in a farewell speech on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, ‘‘We oppose any person using these so-called issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs and make thoughtless remarks and criticize summarily.’’ Hua contended that human rights in China have greatly improved when compared to previous decades.
‘‘There’s been great prosperity and an increase in the quality of life and the standard of living here in China,’’ Locke responded Thursday. But he added, ‘‘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, the ability to practice one’s own religion.’’
Locke was asked why China’s super-rich are hedging against sudden arrests and asset seizures by seeking shelter in foreign countries through visas and children born abroad. Locke said the development shows the need for rule of law and a neutral judicial system.
‘‘I hear oftentimes it’s motivated by a desire for stability, and predictability and security of investment earnings.’’
Raising concern about Japan-China tensions, Locke said, ‘‘It’s important that both sides lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy. . . . The last thing we need is some unintended incident that leads to unintended consequences.’’
During his past 2½ years as ambassador, Locke, who is departing China on March 1, has guided the US-China relationship through some of its most fraught incidents in recent memory. He touched on them Thursday, recalling the high-stakes negotiations between US and Chinese officials over a blind dissident — Chen Guangcheng — who took shelter at the US Embassy, and the attempted defection of a Communist Party insider that triggered fallout among leaders.
Locke also touted two of the biggest accomplishments of his tenure: cutting down US visa wait times for Chinese trying to visit, and multiplying by the amount of Chinese investment pouring into the United States.
While he remained vague on his post-China plans, Locke said he plans to continue contributing to US-China exchanges and US business interests in China.