BEIJING -- A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke was wrong in saying this week that China's human rights situation has deteriorated.
Spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing that Locke's allegations were "inconsistent with the facts" and that China attaches great importance to protecting human rights.
Locke said Monday during an interview on "The Charlie Rose Show" in the United States that there was a significant crackdown on dissent underway in China and that things had worsened since 2008, when controls were eased slightly ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
Liu responded saying that China still faces challenges in the human rights realm but that the majority of Chinese citizens are satisfied with how the country has developed.
"We are ready to work with the international community to strengthen human rights dialogue and cooperation," Liu said. "But we oppose the practice of using so-called human rights issues to interfere in China's internal affairs, including China's judicial sovereignty."
Liu also said it was wrong to regard the views of some outspoken Chinese as mainstream, an apparent reference to high-profile dissidents such as jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Locke has advocated on behalf of Liu and other Chinese government critics who are serving prison terms for their opinions.
"As to some people who have been punished by law, it is not because China is repressing freedom of expression or freedom of religion, it is because they reached the bottom line of China's law and violated China's laws and, naturally, they should be punished," Liu said. "This has nothing to do with so-called human rights."
Locke told Rose that the human rights "climate has always ebbed and flowed in China, up and down, but we seem to be in a down period and it's getting worse."
He said Chinese leaders were afraid they could face a wave of protests similar to the uprisings that toppled governments in the Middle East and North Africa last year.
Chinese authorities have used disappearances, house arrest, lengthy prison terms and other means to prevent activists from drawing inspiration from the Arab Spring protests that unseated autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Last month, two longtime democracy and rights activists, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, were separately sentenced by courts in southern and central China to nine and 10 years in prison for posting essays on the Internet that the government deemed subversive.