British PM heads to China balancing business, human rights

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British Prime Minister David Cameron was heading to China on Monday after firms from the two countries agreed a raft of deals, but he faced pressure to challenge the Beijing leadership on human rights.

Cameron is leading a major delegation of around 50 top business leaders and four senior ministers in a bid to strengthen ties in his first official visit to the Asian economic powerhouse.

"This is a vitally important trade mission," the British leader said ahead of his two-day trip, adding that his government "wants to have a much, much stronger relationship with China."

London also announced that Chinese and British firms had already signed a string of deals worth millions of dollars after British Business Secretary Vince Cable opened talks in the Chinese capital on Monday.

"China is a huge opportunity for UK businesses and I would urge more companies to follow in their footsteps," Cable said.

Cameron will meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing as Britain, like other Western nations, hunts new sources of economic growth while imposing deep spending cuts after the financial crisis.

But Cameron faced calls not to shy away from addressing human rights during his talks with the Chinese hierarchy.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of China's communist rulers who was put under house arrest at the weekend, chided Western leaders for putting trade relationships with Beijing ahead of their commitment to rights.

"I don't know how the British prime minister will react. But in varying degrees, the American, French and German leaders betrayed the values which are most treasured by humanity," Ai told AFP in a telephone interview.

Ai, 53, one of China's most famous and controversial artists, was prevented from attending an event at his new Shanghai studio which is set for demolition as police confined him to his home for two days.

Western leaders "must insist on human rights issues, that it is inadmissible for citizens to be imprisoned because they think differently," Ai said.

British media also urged Cameron to press rights issues.

The Times newspaper said in an editorial that the visit would be a "test" of Cameron's "political adroitness in delivering awkward messages to his hosts without provoking anger or sabotaging the broader aims of his visit."

It said that "no British Prime Minister can go to Beijing and keep silent about the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo", the jailed Chinese dissident who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

The British contracts announced on Monday are worth at least 12 million pounds (13.8 million euros, 19 million dollars), a possible prelude to what British companies hope will be a big pay-off later this week.

They include a two-million-pound coal injection technology agreement between British firm Clyde Blowers and Yima Coal Industry Group as well as contracts worth four million pounds for architecture firm Benoy.

Trade between the two nations was worth 51.8 billion dollars last year, with Britain exporting 12.4 billion dollars worth of goods and services to China.

The United States, France and Germany have led calls for the release of Liu Xiaobo, but when officials or politicians come to China, their voices are more muted.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not speak publicly about rights issues during a visit to China in April, and President Hu Jintao's visit to France last week resulted in more than 20 billion dollars in contracts for French firms.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to China in July saw the world's top two exporting nations sign a series of deals reportedly worth several billion dollars.

© 2010 AFP

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