China defended its human rights record to the United Nations yesterday, insisting it has undertaken sweeping reforms, as Tibetan activists said more must be done to hold Beijing to account.
Yesterday's session in Geneva was the first time that Beijing's human rights record under President Xi Jinping had come under international scrutiny.
Special envoy Wu Hailong told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that China had lived up to a pledge made in 2009 when it was last under scrutiny by the watchdog.
"The Chinese government made a solemn commitment when China undergoes the next review, the world will see a China with a more prosperous economy, improved democracy and the rule of law, a more harmonious society and people living in greater happiness," Wu said.
In 2009, the council had urged China to make more efforts in areas including poverty reduction, judicial reforms and ethnic minority rights.
"Four years have passed, and I want to tell you that the above recommendations either have been implemented or are being carried out, and our commitment has been basically fulfilled," Wu said. All UN member states are meant to undergo similar reviews every four years.
In the run-up to Tuesday's review, human rights campaigners raised the alarm about the disappearance of Chinese activist Cao Shunli, who had been due to attend the session.
In a statement on Monday, the European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, urged Beijing to clarify what had happened to Cao, and to do nothing to hamper the participation of campaigners at the UN Human Rights Council.
Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, said China must demonstrate its commitment by ending a crackdown on human rights activists, including harassment, arbitrary arrest and torture, as well as stop muzzling the media and halt abuses against its Tibetan and Uygur minorities.
Some experts in China and abroad had thought Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors after he became president almost a year ago.
Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clampdown that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change. For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth, as well as scores of people accused of online "rumour-mongering".
"Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights," rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said in Beijing.
"Look at the number of people who are being locked up and the measures that are being taken to lock them up."
The council has no binding powers. Its rotating membership of 47 states does not include China, although Beijing is expected to run for a spot next month.
Before the meeting, Maya Wang, an Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said diplomats were likely to raise questions over China's crackdown on dissent, the death penalty and the use of torture among other topics.
Of special concern, Wang said, was the arrest in August of activist Xu Zhiyong , who had called for officials to reveal their wealth.
Wang also cited the September disappearance of Cao Shunli, who had helped stage a sit-in this year outside the Foreign Ministry to press for the public to be allowed to contribute to a national human rights report.
On Sunday, Chinese police arrested Wang Gongquan , a well-known venture capitalist, Wang's lawyer, Chen Youxi, said on his microblog. Wang had helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist.
Rights lawyer Li Fangping did not believe China was ready for a seat on the human rights council. "There is still a huge number of citizens for whom a lack of human rights is a growing problem."
Reuters, Agence France-Presse