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Canadian and Chinese national flags hang from a lamp post in front of the giant portrait of former Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at Beijing's Tiananmen Square December 2, 2009.


China has lashed out at Canada and 10 other countries whose embassies questioned its treatment of human rights lawyers, saying a diplomatic letter calling for an investigation into torture allegations violates "the spirit of rule of law."

"China is always opposed to the efforts of any country to disrupt the normal case handling by Chinese judicial authorities at the excuse of human rights," Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, said Tuesday.

She was responding to a Feb. 27 letter sent to Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun by nearly a dozen Beijing foreign missions that expresses "growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders."

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It calls for an independent investigation and urges the Chinese government to end a system of pretrial custody, called "residential surveillance at a designated location," that in sensitive cases can hold suspects for months without providing notification of their whereabouts to family or lawyers, placing them at risk of torture.

The letter was signed by Canada, Japan, Switzerland, Australia and seven European Union members, but not the United States. It names lawyers and activists whose families and legal counsel have described beatings, sleep deprivation and electrocutions, saying "credible claims of torture have been brought to our attention."

The letter was sent privately, but The Globe and Mail obtained a copy.

Related: China takes aim at civil society in systematic crackdown: report

On Tuesday, China said the signatory countries had no right to communicate their concern.

"You mentioned this expression of opinions by 11 missions in China," said Ms. Hua, in response to a question from The Globe. "I believe this in itself is violating the spirit of rule of law." She added: "All sovereign states enjoy the independence of judicial affairs, and no country has the right to interfere with the independence of their judicial affairs."

Ms. Hua defended the Chinese legal system, saying, "China has repeatedly expressed that China is a country under the rule of law and everyone stands equal in front of the law, and no one can rise beyond the law."

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On the same day, a Chinese news outlet published a statement from police in Henan province who acknowledged a suspect died in custody, and interrogators "are suspected of using torture to extract confessions and collect evidence," Agence France-Presse reported.

Reports from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations Committee on Torture have called torture a deeply entrenched feature of the Chinese justice system, in contravention of the country's own laws. Chinese courts rely heavily on confessions. Critics say that creates pressure for investigators to secure admissions of guilt.

In the days after the letter was sent, Chinese state media published a series of articles saying allegations of torture made by one lawyer, Xie Yang, amounted to "fake news." Mr. Xie told his lawyers he was punched, kicked and kneed by interrogators who threatened: "I'm going to torment you until you go insane."

State-run news agency Xinhua called Mr. Xie's accusations of mistreatment "nothing but cleverly orchestrated lies" masterminded by a legal team "aiming to cater to the tastes of Western institutions and media organizations and to use public opinion to pressure police and smear the Chinese government."

The ferocity of that response suggests "that they are not on good grounds and are struggling for a way to defend the indefensible," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

It also underscores that "foreign criticism of China's practices still makes a big difference, even if China pretends like it doesn't care," he said.

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Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, called on foreign powers to "voice these kinds of criticism consistently including at highest level of government, because the Chinese government is paying attention."

China has long bristled at criticism of its human rights record, and has in recent years grown more aggressive in calling out the failings of others. Earlier this month, the Chinese government released its scathing latest report on the United States.

"With the gunshots lingering in people's ears behind the Statue of Liberty, worsening racial discrimination and the election farce dominated by money politics, the self-proclaimed human rights defender has exposed its human rights 'myth' with its own deeds," the report said.

China also points to the achievements of hundreds of millions of its people in shaking off poverty as an indication of how Communist leadership has helped to enhance human dignity. China has used its rising economic power to make substantial strides in providing health care and social benefits to large numbers of its people. President Xi Jinping has pledged to eliminate poverty by 2020.

"China is outstanding in many aspects," said Ms. Hua on Tuesday, after scolding a reporter for asking why the country maintains its residential surveillance detention system, which has been the subject of much international criticism.

"Maybe you can spend more time talking to everyday Chinese and learning about the feelings of the Chinese people," she said. "Then there could be a change in your point of view in looking at human rights issues in China."

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Songting is a couple of hundred kilometres east of Beijing. This former farming community is now ringed by steel mills whose pollution ends up being blown toward the Chinese capital. Locals say their food is contaminated and health problems are caused by the pollution.

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