Human rights and trade top Cook's agenda in Peking

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The Independent Online
China is sounding friendlier towards Britain than for years, with Hong Kong's transition deemed a success. So Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, arrives in the mainland today to a "fresh start". Teresa Poole in Peking says this should make it easier for him to raise human rights issues.

Not for a long time has a visiting British Foreign Secretary arrived in Peking to find what counts in China as a charm offensive. Chinese officials speak of how it is time to draw a line under the "twists" that embittered the Sino-British relationship over Hong Kong, and they welcome the "new initiatives" shown by the British government.

It goes without saying that Peking finds this much easier with a new Labour government, whose ministers had no role in the battles over Chris Patten's governorship of the former colony.

Mr Cook, who arrives in Peking this afternoon, will spend little more than 24 hours in the city before flying on to Hong Kong tomorrow evening. The meetings scheduled with his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, and President Jiang Zemin are supposed to lay the foundations for "a sound and broadly-based relationship", say British officials.

It is Mr Cook's first visit to the mainland as Foreign Secretary since the return of Hong Kong on 1 July last year. Last week, Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, arrived in Peking to what the Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, publicly called a "special welcome". Tony Blair is scheduled to visit later this year.

British officials insist Mr Cook will be "pursuing a dialogue on human rights" as well as emphasising a "broad trade agenda". They insist that the question of commerce and human rights "isn't an 'either/or'" and that Mr Cook is looking for a mixture of "dialogue, discussion, and practical action" on human rights.

With Britain holding the European Union presidency, Mr Cook has already said he would like the EU to adopt a common line on human rights in China. EU countries have to decide whether to back a new resolution condemning China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March, following the collapse of a consensus last year [1997] when France and Germany broke ranks. This annual showdown, which has never succeeded against China, is much detested by Peking, and Chinese officials may use this visit to try to convince Mr Cook that it is counter-productive. Last week, in Washington, Mr Cook said the EU and the United States were still undecided over whether to back a new resolution.

China's view that this is the year for a new start for Sino-British relations may, paradoxically, make Peking's leaders less touchy over Mr Cook's overtures for a human rights dialogue. The Foreign Secretary decided not to meet Wei Jingsheng, the leading Chinese dissident released in November, when he was in London earlier this month, something which will not have gone unnoticed in Peking.

At the moment Britain is stressing practical measures, such as training and educational programmes to improve the "rule of law" in China, including bringing Chinese judges to the UK. Political prisoners, who can be sent for three years' "re-education through labour" without so much as a trial, are not the only victims of China's legal system. There is little real justice for ordinary, accused criminals, who are often rounded up during anti-crime "crackdowns" and processed through the courts at alarming speed. Civil and commercial law is equally undependable, as foreign companies operating in China have found to their cost.