BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on Thursday lauded the departing U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who may enter the Republican presidential race, setting aside tension over human rights to hail an "old friend of the Chinese people."
Xi and Huntsman are both potential top leaders with an eye on 2012 and beyond, and Xi's unprompted praise stood out after weeks of testy exchanges with the United States over China's tightened grip on dissent.
Huntsman this month ends his time as the Obama administration's chief envoy in Beijing, during which he has taken on a high profile in challenging the ruling Communist Party's clampdown on dissidents and protesters.
But Huntsman, a former Republican governor of Utah who speaks fluent Chinese, has also promoted steadier ties after quarrels in 2010 over China's Internet controls, Tibet and the exiled Dalai Lama, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by China.
Vice President Xi, who is likely to succeed President Hu Jintao as the top Communist Party and state leader from late 2012, appeared eager to stress Huntsman's bridge-building role as he looked to the ambassador's future.
"I must take the opportunity to say a few words about Ambassador Huntsman. His term is coming to an end and we are reluctant to see him go. You are an old friend of the Chinese people," Xi told Huntsman, who was accompanying a delegation of U.S. Senators led by the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"Let me express our appreciation for your contributions. We will never forget what you have done," Xi said in remarks made in the presence of reporters.
"I hope that wherever you work in the future that you come back to China often and continue to make contributions to friendship and cooperation between our two people."
Huntsman is exploring a possible run to seek the Republican Party's nomination for the 2012 presidential election, which would set him against Barack Obama. But Huntsman has not made any official announcements about that.
Huntsman has challenged China's recent crackdown on dissent openly and often.
"The United States will never stop supporting human rights," Huntsman said in a speech in Shanghai this month.
He singled out detained artist-activist Ai Weiwei as among the cases that Washington would continue to press.
Huntsman has also criticized the government over the beating of foreign reporters in Beijing, and met an outspoken human rights activist, Ni Yulan.
Huntsman was also briefly in a crowd that gathered in February on Beijing's Wangfujing shopping street, where online messages had called for a pro-democracy gathering inspired by anti-authoritarian uprisings across the Arab world.
U.S. officials later said Huntsman accidentally came across the gathering, which was smothered by police security and spurred Beijing to take even tougher steps to rein in dissidents.
China has welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama's nomination of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as Huntsman's successor in Beijing.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Robert Birsel)