China on Tuesday rebuffed an expression of concern by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the fate of two prominent Chinese dissidents, saying only the Chinese people had the right to talk about the country's human rights.
Kerry, in a statement on the fifth anniversary of the detention of Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, called for his release, and also said he was concerned about Liu's wife, who is under house arrest, and another well-known activist, Xu Zhiyong, who is expected to face trial soon.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said both Liu and Xu had broken the law.
"China is a country with rule of law, and all are equal before the law. Nobody can be above the law. Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong are Chinese citizens who broke the law and have naturally been punished according to Chinese law," Hong told a daily news briefing.
"What I want to stress is that, China's 1.3 billion people have the best right to talk about the country's human rights. We hope that the U.S. side can act in accordance with the broader perspective of bilateral ties and do more to increase mutual trust."
China is in the midst of a renewed crackdown on dissidents and freedom of speech, defying initial expectations among many that Xi Jinping would take a softer stance after he became president this year.
Western governments have sparred repeatedly with Beijing over human rights and both the United States and European Union have expressed concern about Liu and Xu.
Liu, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the Chinese army, was jailed in 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges for organising a petition urging the overthrow of one-party rule.
Xu is in jail awaiting trial after being arrested for campaigning for Chinese officials to reveal their wealth, in a case that has exposed shortcomings in the government's drive against deep-rooted corruption.