By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - A United Nations-appointed human rights envoy said on Tuesday that the Chinese government interfered with his work during a visit to China by blocking access to individuals whom he had hoped to meet.
Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told reporters at the end of a nine-day visit to China that he had notified the government in advance of academics he wanted to meet on his visit, a routine practice for a U.N. special rapporteur.
"None of those meetings were arranged, and the message I got from many of the people I contacted was that they had been advised that they should be on vacation at this time," said Alston, an Australian who is a law professor at the New York University School of Law.
China's Foreign Ministry did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
"The position that the United Nations has always followed and that I've followed in every other country that I've visited, and there are many, is that the rapporteur is entitled to meet with whomsoever he wants to meet with, that he's entitled to go wherever he wants to," Alston said.
Since taking office more than three years ago, President Xi Jinping has cracked down on dissent, reining in the media and civil society and detaining dozens of rights activists.
Rights groups say the government is trying to silence critics, and also argue that the country's ethnic minorities, particularly in places such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the western region of Xinjiang, face harsh discriminatory measures.
The government routinely rejects criticism of its policies toward minority populations, and denies any abuse of human rights or freedom of expression, saying it is going after lawbreakers.
Alston said he was taken on an "abysmal tour" of a model ethnic village near the southwestern city of Kunming, where officials presented minorities in terms of colorful dances but not in terms of education or meaningful protection of language and traditions.
"The problem with policies on ethnic minorities is that in a country like China they are highly assimilationist," he said, though he praised China for its progress on poverty alleviation.
Special rapporteurs work on a voluntary basis, are not U.N. staff, and do not get paid for their work.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Ryan Woo and Simon Cameron-Moore)