By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's future development will hinge on a neutral judiciary and freedom of speech, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said on Wednesday in his final speech as envoy to Beijing, focusing heavily on human rights.
Locke, the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, leaves the Chinese capital on Saturday and will be replaced by Senator Max Baucus.
China's leaders should not sacrifice "the long-term rewards of citizen engagement for a short term definition of social stability," he said.
Speaking to Chinese students at a U.S. cultural center, Locke said, "China has a great future ahead of it. But reaching its full potential will depend on a neutral and respected judiciary, an active set of dedicated lawyers, wise leadership, but most of all, reverence toward the rule of law."
Locke's 2-1/2 years as ambassador were partly defined by a diplomatic tussle over blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest in 2012 to seek refuge in the embassy and later travelled to New York to study on a U.S.-brokered deal.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China's rights situation had developed rapidly over the past three decades.
"We oppose any person using these so-called issues to interfere in China's internal affairs and make thoughtless remarks and criticize summarily," she told a regular briefing on Wednesday.
Locke restated U.S. concerns over a spate of arrests and prosecutions of reform activists, but mentioned no specific cases.
Authorities in the restive far western region of Xinjiang have charged prominent ethnic Uighur economist Ilham Tohti with separatism, his wife and lawyer said on Tuesday. Tohti has championed the rights of Xinjiang's Muslim Uighur community.
Late in January, a court sentenced one of China's most prominent rights advocates, Xu Zhiyong, to four years in prison after he campaigned for the rights of children from rural areas to be educated in cities alongside their migrant parents and for officials to disclose their assets. China has detained at least 20 campaigners demanding asset disclosure in recent months.
Locke also called for "more equitable treatment" of foreign journalists, who face difficulties, such as visa delays and harassment, when covering issues like human rights trials.
"As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that has hosted the Olympics and sent a spacecraft to the moon, China should have the national self-confidence to withstand the media scrutiny that most of the world takes for granted," Locke said.
The government argues its policies have made great strides in protecting human rights by lifting millions out of poverty. It also says foreign media are granted wide-ranging freedoms.
Locke, a former commerce secretary, was immediately popular on arrival, partly because of his Chinese descent, but also because of what Chinese people viewed as his humble manner.
But Chinese criticism of him mounted in 2012 over the Chen affair, which overshadowed high-level U.S.-Chinese foreign policy and economic talks.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski and Clarence Fernandez)