At a press conference today in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced trade deals worth £1.4 billion ($2.33 billion), but economics wasn’t the only topic of discussion.
When asked about whether he would raise the issue of human rights during talks at 10 Downing Street today, Mr. Cameron replied: “There is no trade-off in our relationship. It is not about either discussing trade or human rights. Britain and China have such a strong and developed relationship. We have a dialogue that covers all these issues, and nothing is off limits in the discussions that we have. We are different countries, we have different histories, different stages of development. We should show each other respect. But we’re very clear that political and economic development should go hand in hand, that one supports the other.”
Mr. Wen towed the same line that he and Chinese President Hu Jintao frequently do on diplomatic missions to the West: to respect each other as “equals” on human rights. He said: “On human rights, China and the UK should respect each other, respect the facts, treat each other as equals, engage in more co-operation than finger-pointing and resolve our differences through dialogue.” Mr. Wen added that China is involved in ”political structural reform and improvement of democracy and the rule of law” but offered no specifics. “We should show each other respect. But we’re very clear that political and economic development should go hand in hand, that one supports the other.”
Arriving Saturday evening to Birmingham, Mr. Wen and his entourage met human rights protests at the MG Rover auto factory they were visiting. The Free Tibet campaign organized protests today in London across from 10 Downing Street, where talks are scheduled between the two leaders this afternoon.
Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said that despite difficult financial times, Britons still value human rights and quoted a recent poll in which three quarters of the British public consider protecting human rights in Tibet as being at least as important as maintaining good trade relations with China.
She also called on Mr. Cameron to take a stronger stance on human rights: “Up to this point, successive British governments have played a two-handed game with the Chinese government and the British public. They have kept China happy by making only the most veiled of veiled references to human rights when standing beside Chinese counterparts or in front of Chinese audiences, but have spoken out for democracy and human rights in other forums to keep domestic, UK audiences on-side. It is time for a more coherent approach.
In advance of Mr. Wen’s five-day European trip, China released prominent artist Ai Weiwei on bail. However, Mr. Ai is not permitted to leave Beijing or to speak with the media. It is unclear whether he will face additional charges.
And just yesterday, China released human rights activist Hu Jia. His wife and fellow activist Zeng Jinyan wrote on Twitter that Mr. Hu returned to his residence outside Beijing early Sunday to be reunited with the family after serving three-and-a-half years in jail on subversion charges.
The Chinese authorities and Mr. Wen are probably hoping to deflect criticism over human rights abuses by releasing Ai and Hu, two high profile prisoners. There are dozens more like them still languishing in prison.
Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said: “The Prime Minister must not allow these high profile releases to cloud the bigger picture. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention and at risk of torture in Tibet and China, and the human rights situation overall is at its worst since 1989. Mr Cameron must speak up clearly and publicly for ordinary Tibetans and Chinese who suffer gross violations of their human rights under Chinese Communist Party rule; he must not be gagged on by the lure of Chinese investment. Prisoners like 84-year-old Paljor do not enjoy the protection that Ai Weiwei and Hu Jia have as a result of their international profiles. Paljor was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly ‘printing illegal materials’ including the banned Tibetan national flag. Paljor’s whereabouts are unknown, and his age means that there is particular concern for his well-being.”
Before traveling to Britain, Mr. Wen was in Hungary, the current seat of the European Union presidency. Mr. Wen received a warm welcome from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who during 1998-2002 refused to do business with Russia or China, but has since changed his mind. In Budapest, Mr. Wen signed a number of cooperation deals with Mr. Orbán and announced that China was ready to purchase Hungarian government bonds and extend a 1 billion euro ($1.4 billion) credit to the country. It is the first visit to Hungary by a Chinese leader in 24 years, since before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Mr. Wen will make the fly leg of his journey tonight when he travels to Berlin, where he will begin his visit with a dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two countries will discuss the euro and world currency system reforms. Last week in a statement, Ms. Merkel welcomed the release on bail of Ai Weiwei and said that the artist’s release is only a first step: “The Chancellor had called upon the Chinese leadership to free him and allow him access to his family and to legal assistance. However, today’s release on bail can only be a first step. Now the accusations against Ai Weiwei must be investigated transparently and according to the rule of law,” Merkel said.