In China, Britain's Cameron aims to boost trade ties but can't escape human rights issue

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was recently placed under house arrest, called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to raise the issue of human rights during his trip this week to Beijing.

Stefan Rousseau/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (l.) is greeted by China's Premier Wen Jiabao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Nov. 9.

On the heels of French and Portuguese delegations last week, the largest ever British mission to Beijing set to work Tuesday, hoping to ease its deep domestic woes with better trade relations with China.

Following the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, Britain’s historical tensions with China have eased in recent years. What's more, Beijing is eager to to boost bilateral links against the backdrop of relative friction with the US.

David Cameron had barely touched down in the Chinese capital, however, when a persistent fault line in China’s engagement with the west emerged – its human rights record. Mr. Cameron is coming under mounting pressure to speak out on the issue.

“You owe Chinese people, the people who sacrifice their rights," said one of China’s best known artists, Ai Weiwei, who used a BBC interview Tuesday to make a direct plea to the British premier.

Mr. Ai, who says he was recently put under house arrest by the Chinese authorities after thousands of people accepted his invitation to a party at his condemned studio in Shanghai, currently enjoys a high profile in the UK as the creator of an art installation in London’s prestigious Tate Modern art gallery.

China's human rights record

The artist had also used an article Monday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper to bemoan the growing reluctance of foreign leaders to raise sensitive topics during meetings with Chinese counterparts for fear of losing business.

"Since the global economic crisis began, the change in global attitudes is clear to see and I think it is pitiful,” he wrote.

In public at least, there was little evidence Tuesday that Cameron was going to risk upsetting China. Instead, he said that he wanted to double bilateral trade with China to more than $100 billion a year by 2015.

Even so, commentators like Kerry Brown, a China expert at the London-based Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, said that Cameron was known to have strong views on the case of China’s jailed Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo and would surely raise the issue.

“Britain has already said, pretty robustly to the Chinese, that it is going to send a representative to the Nobel Prize ceremony and they can damn their grubby little letters saying that people shouldn’t go,” says Dr. Brown.

Cameron did raise the issue of human rights in talks Tuesday with the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, but did not refer specifically to the plight of Liu Xiaobo. The Prime Minister still had an opportunity Wednesday to bring up the dissident's case during an official banquet hosted by Mr. Wen later or in talks with President Hu.

Benefits to trade ties

The fruits of the visit for the British were already apparent Tuesday in the form of a boost for the British firm Rolls-Royce, whose share price took a battering last week after a blowout by one of its engines on a Sydney-bound Qantas flight.

The British engineering firm won a massive deal worth $1.2 billion dollars to supply and service jet engines for a major Chinese airline. The order was signed in front of Cameron in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Earlier, his first stop after landing at Beijing's airport was a branch of the British-owned Tesco supermarket chain, which is planning to significantly expand from its current 99 outlets in China.

Whether trade ties come at a hidden price remains to be seen.

The Nobel controversy

Following Chinese President Hu Jintao's European visit, France said Monday it will hold a meeting in Brussels to develop a common European position on whether or not states should attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Liu Xiaobo.

Brown observed: “China certainly spends a lot of time working on bilateral relations, even with quite small countries, within the European Union. At times like this, when they are lobbying countries not to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony you can kind of see why because they can really pull their favors in.

“They have been tremendously patient in building up diplomatic relations with a surprisingly wide number of countries. However, it’s pretty asymmetrical so they have a history of creating discord in Europe when there are issues that impact on them, such as Taiwan or Tibet. They have quite a record of dividing different countries in Europe."

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