Britain, China sign trade deals but rights issue rears head
The premiers of Britain and China on Tuesday oversaw trade deals worth more than a billion dollars but human rights cast a shadow over Prime Minister David Cameron's bid to strengthen economic ties.
Cameron -- travelling with Britain's largest-ever delegation of bosses and ministers to China -- wanted to focus on doubling trade with the world's second largest economy and taking their trade relations "to a new level."
By far the biggest deal announced Tuesday was worth 1.2 billion dollars between Rolls-Royce and China Eastern Airlines Corp. under which the British group will provide jet engines to power 16 Airbus A330 aircraft.
Facing pressure to challenge Chinese leaders on rights, Cameron said he was not for "lecturing and hectoring" Beijing.
But he could still raise the case of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo at a Tuesday banquet with Premier Wen Jiabao, or Wednesday's meeting with President Hu Jintao.
Cameron and Wen had a "general discussion" on human rights in a meeting Tuesday, British officials said, highlighting that Wen had welcomed the two countries' discussions on rights.
China defended its human rights record, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei telling reporters at a regular briefing that China's citizens today "are enjoying more extensive rights and freedoms."
"This is a fact that is there for everyone to see."
Cameron is the first Western leader to visit China since dissident Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8 -- an honour hailed in the West but condemned by Beijing as tantamount to "encouraging crime".
The lawyer who heads the firm that represents Liu, Mo Shaoping, told AFP Tuesday that he had been prevented from boarding a flight out of China, saying the Nobel connection was "definitely" behind the decision.
On the eve of Cameron's visit, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken government critic who was placed under house arrest last week, added that Western leaders on trade trips to China "must insist on human rights issues."
Countries including Britain have said they will not heed a Chinese call for Western diplomats to steer clear of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in December.
Cameron is travelling with 43 bosses from major British companies and four government ministers on his first official visit after taking power in May.
He said in an article for the Wall Street Journal that he expected to see "new contracts worth billions of dollars" signed during his two days in Beijing, which come ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Seoul starting Thursday.
His longer-term target is to double the level of trade in goods and services between Britain and China by 2015, from last year's 51.8 billion dollars, although it is thought there has been no specific discussion on targets with China.
Cameron's government is searching for new sources of economic growth after unveiling the deepest public sector spending cuts in decades last month.
His ministers are battling to tackle a record deficit of 154.7 billion pounds (249.3 billion dollars).
Earlier deals signed include a 45-million-pound, five-year agreement for British companies to export breeding pigs to China and the construction of 50 new English-language schools in China by Britain's Pearson.
In a bid to highlight the opportunities for British companies in China, Cameron's first visit of the two-day trip was to a supermarket run by Tesco, the world's third largest retailer, in south Beijing.
The British premier will meet Hu and attend a business summit on Wednesday before heading to South Korea.
© 2010 AFP