China, which has been criticized for vetoing a U.N. vote aimed at pressuring Syria's leader to step down, said Thursday it will send a senior envoy to the country for talks on ending the violence there.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a news briefing. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.
China and Russia drew the wrath of the United States, Europe and much of the Arab world earlier this month for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. China says the council vote was called before differences over the proposal were bridged.
Eleven months of bloodshed in Syria have left more than 5,000 dead as the regime has cracked down on protesters and rebels.
Liu said Zhai's schedule was still being arranged and he had no information on whom he would meet.
"I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation," Liu said.
Zhai's visit will come during an escalation in violence in Syria, especially in the central city of Homs. It also comes ahead of a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution that would create a multiparty system in a country that has been ruled by Assad's autocratic family dynasty for 40 years.
Assad opponents say the referendum, announced Wednesday, and other reforms will not be enough, insisting Assad must go. The White House has also dismissed the referendum.
Earlier this week in Beijing, Premier Wen Jiabo told visiting U.N. leaders that the most urgent issue in Syria was to "prevent war and chaos." He said China was not protecting any party, including the government, in the dispute.
Later Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on an Arab-sponsored resolution strongly condemning human rights violations by the Syrian regime and backing an Arab League plan that calls for Assad to hand over power to his vice president. The measure cannot be vetoed in the Assembly, but the resolution would be nonbinding.