BEIJING - A day after Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the Chinese government to close its re-education-through-labor camps where people can spend three years without trial, officials here defended the practice as legal, humane and kind of cozy.
During a morning news conference, an official with the State Council -- China's Cabinet - painted a warm picture of camp life .
"On the issue of re-education through labor, we have a saying: the authorities will treat those people who are receiving re-education in a way like teachers treat students, like doctors treat patients, like parents treat children," said Liu Jing, head of China's Office for Prevention and Handling of Cults.
Liu's comments came during a news conference on the government's long-running campaign to destroy the banned spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong. Spokesmen for Falun Gong say that 5,000 practitioners are being held in camps. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 practitioners have died from torture and beatings while in police custody.
At a separate news conference yesterday, Robinson, the former Irish president, criticized China's treatment of practitioners of Falun Gong, which government officials here say is an "evil cult" bent on toppling the Communist Party.
"It's very clear that the human rights of Falun Gong [practitioners] are being transgressed," said Robinson. "The manner of treatment is not acceptable. It has to be addressed."
Robinson was in Beijing for a workshop with Chinese and international scholars on how to handle the punishment of minor crimes. It is the first gathering of its kind under an agreement signed last year that calls for a dialogue on the role of police and human rights.
Police often send petty criminals, including drug users and prostitutes, to camps. The regime also uses the re-education-through-labor camps to hold religious and political dissidents without cumbersome trials. Human Rights in China, an international watchdog group, estimates that such camps house about 260,000 people here.
Human rights is always an issue in China, but considerable attention has been paid this year.
Last month, five people the government has identified as Falun Gong practitioners set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in what many viewed as a protest of the regime's then-18-month- long crackdown on the group.
In the ensuing weeks, Amnesty International issued an extensive report stating that torture is widespread in China. Then a human rights activist in London issued another paper exploring the use of mental hospitals to lock up dissidents and other people the government finds distasteful.
On Monday, the criticism continued as the U.S. State Department released its annual human rights report in which it said China's human rights situation continued to deteriorate.
Among the offenses the report cited were the demolition of unregistered churches as well as the detention of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners in prisons, camps and mental institutions.
On a positive note, the report also mentioned that state control over people's daily lives continues to decline and that many Chinese enjoy more personal freedom to live and work where they want.
Yesterday, as it did last year, the Chinese government fired back by trashing the United States' human rights record and saying America's desire to spread democracy was just a ploy to interfere in other countries' internal affairs.
In a series of articles, the government attacked the high U.S. homicide rate as well as the problems of poverty and racism. It also noted that a relatively small percentage of eligible voters cast ballots in last year's presidential election.
"Well-informed people know that the so-called democracy has been nothing more than a fairy tale since the United States was founded more than 200 years ago," said the Information Office of China's State Council, according to the government-run New China News Service.
Despite her public disagreements with Chinese officials, Robinson seemed to find some cause for optimism yesterday. She said she was hopeful China might soon ratify a U.N. treaty, called the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The treaty would require China to permit foreign officials to monitor its progress toward meeting international standards. The regime, though, has objected to a provision which requires freedom to form independent unions, currently forbidden.
Robinson also said she was encouraged by the government's efforts to develop a rule of law, which could eventually provide citizens with basic rights. "This is now fundamental to China's reform and approach," she said.