U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke was the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing and presided over huge growth in economic ties and rise in Chinese visitors to the United States. Locke, who is leaving China on Saturday, also has guided the U.S.-China relationship through some fraught incidents. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Outgoing U.S. 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 news conference, mentioning by name an outspoken ethnic-
minority scholar
who was arrested and charged Tuesday with “separatism” by Chinese authorities.

U.S. officials are “very concerned” about professor Ilham Tohti, a known 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 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 argued that human rights in China have greatly improved when compared with 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 about why China’s super-rich are increasingly hedging against sudden arrests and asset seizures by seeking shelter in foreign countries such as the United States through visas and children born abroad. Locke said the development highlights the need for rule of law and a neutral judicial system.

Voicing concern about increasing Japan-China tensions, which threaten to entangle the United States, Locke said, “It’s important that both sides lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy.”

During his 21 / 2 years as ambassador, Locke, who is departing China on Saturday, has guided the U.S.-China relationship through some of its most fraught incidents in recent memory. He touched on them Thursday, recalling the high-stakes negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials over a blind dissident — Chen Guangcheng — who took shelter at the U.S. Embassy, as well as the attempted defection of a Communist Party insider that triggered fallout among party leaders.

Locke has been one of the most publicly recognized and popular U.S. ambassadors in Chinese history because of his status as the first ethnic Chinese in the position. His tenure resulted in public fascination here, spawning endless photos and discussions about him on China’s version of Twitter, in which Chinese often compared his no-frills, man-of-the-people style favorably with China’s often out-of-touch party leaders.

Reflecting on his dual roles as an American envoy and an ethnic Chinese, Locke ended his news conference Thursday by saying: “I’m proud of my Chinese heritage. I’m proud of the great contributions that China has made to world civilization over thousands of years. But I’m thoroughly American. I’m proud of the great values that America has brought to the entire world and all that America stands for.