BEIJING — Facing a crucial U.N. review of its human rights record, China on Monday denied that it censors the news media, maintains hidden prisons, persecutes minorities or gives an excessive number of prisoners the death penalty.
The airing of charges of abuses occurred before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, where all U.N. members' records are scrutinized every four years.
China's turn came Monday, and Ambassador Li Baodong began the three-hour session on a conciliatory note, saying that his nation has made progress in lifting its 1.3 billion citizens out of poverty but that it still has a distance to go to protect their rights.
"We're fully aware of the difficulties and challenges we face in the field of human rights," Li said, adding that China would welcome a visit by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay this year.
The envoys of dozens of countries hailed China for raising longevity and literacy rates and improving living standards. Some nations that are under scrutiny for their own rights practices, such as Sri Lanka, lashed out at the West for what it called "malign criticism of China."
As the hearing unfolded, several Western envoys grilled China about its rights practices, and one delegate suggested that unless China stops persecuting ethnic and religious minorities it may face social turmoil at home.
"The violation of such human rights may lead to increased radicalization within minority communities and threats to internal stability within China," Australian Ambassador Caroline Millar said.
A Canadian envoy urged China to "eliminate abuse of psychiatric committal" while a German diplomat exhorted Beijing to halt forced labor at some 320 "re-education through labor" camps that house 170,000 detainees. Others brought up China's treatment of its Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities.
Li lashed out at the Australian criticism, calling it unfounded, and introduced experts who traveled to Geneva to attend the hearing, which the U.N. Human Rights Council broadcast on the Internet.
Li Wufeng of the information office of the State Council, China's Cabinet, denied charges of widespread censorship of the Internet and print and broadcast media in China.
"The government encourages the media to play its role of watchdog, and there is no censorship in the country," Li said.
Press freedom groups note that nearly 80 journalists and bloggers are detained in China, including Liu Xiaobo, a press freedom advocate who was arrested in December for supporting Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms in China.
Another Chinese official, Song Hansong of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, dismissed charges by Amnesty International and other rights groups that illegal detention centers have been established at which prisoners are denied all rights.
"Our law clearly prohibits private detention facilities. There are no such things as 'black jails' in the country," Song said.
On a more conciliatory note, Chinese officials said they might heed criticism that China's application of the death penalty for 68 categories of crimes, including nonviolent offenses such as tax evasion, may be too broad.
"Some countries suggest we should reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. I can say proper consideration is being given to the subject," said Hu Yunteng, vice director of research at the Supreme People's Court, China's highest tribunal.
In its written submission to the U.N. body, China declined to say how many people receive the death penalty each year.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, says it thinks that 7,500 people may be executed each year in China. In contrast, 37 inmates were executed in the United States last year.
Another Chinese official, Zhang Yunchuan of the state ethnic affairs commission, said that no friction at all divided China's Han majority and 55 other ethnic groups.
"All ethnic groups live in harmony . . . and there is no conflict," Zhang said.
China was torn by its worst ethnic rioting in nearly two decades last year when Tibetans in Lhasa and more than 100 other sites rose up to protest grievances on a variety of matters, including religious restrictions. At least 23 people, and perhaps many more, died in the violence.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009