The remarks by the International Development Secretary appear to clash with Tony Blair's appointment of Michael Heseltine, the former cabinet minister, to spearhead British export efforts to China's opening market. They are likely to anger British exporters struggling to find markets abroad.
Ms Short told ITV's Dimbleby programme that during her recent trip to China, her officials asked her to try to win business for British firms. "Within my briefing there was some suggestion I might raise the odd contract that was around. I didn't bother." She added: "Perhaps I shouldn't say that."
But she had raised the question of human rights in China. "My job is the human rights of the poorest people in the world," she said.
She also revealed she had intervened to try to block British arms sales abroad, on humanitrian grounds. Her department has been given new powers to object to proposed arms exports, normally the responsibility of the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry. Ms Short said she was allowed to object on the grounds the weapons might be used for foreign aggression, internal repression or because the money would be better spent on the poor.
The Tory Party accused Ms Short of dropping "another clumsy clanger". Gary Streeter, the shadow minister for International Development, called for a public apology.
The Confederation of British Industry was more restrained. A spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister's visit to China in October was heavily trade- oriented... The CBI sees the role of the Prime Minister and other ministers as facilitators in building and developing trade between the UK and China. It does not look to them to promote individual companies or deals."Reuse content