China Aids activist arrested in human rights crackdown

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Hu Jia, a prominent Aids campaigner, has been arrested for the second time this year, in a crackdown on human rights activists.

And the outspoken website of Baixing magazine was closed, seemingly because of a report about a villager killed while trying to stop demolition of his home. Last month, the Century China website, the last remaining bastion of relatively free speech in China, was closed.

Tony Blair is likely to raise points about human rights and freedom of expression when he meets the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, next week during the Chinese leader's visit to Europe, which will include stops in Finland and Germany.

But Beijing is equally likely to stick to its usual line that foreign governments should not interfere in China's human rights issues, an area jealously guarded as an "internal matter", and call for understanding for China's reform process.

Before the arrest of Mr Hu at least 20 plainclothes police officers surrounded his house. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, said the officers did not show identification or an arrest warrant, and merely said they were taking him to a local police station.

Mr Hu, 33, is best known for his courageous advocacy work for Aids sufferers in rural China but he has also embraced the causes of Gao Zhisheng, an activist lawyer detained in August, and Chen Guangcheng, a blind rural campaigner who was recently sentenced to more than four years in jail.

Already this year, Mr Hu was held without charge for 41 days. Other leading Chinese rights activists have been placed under house arrest, or moved to their home towns away from constant police scrutiny or gone into hiding in distant cities.

Beijing is growing in diplomatic confidence. In some matters, such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear stand-offs, China sees its role as an honest broker in international disputes. Mr Wen told a pre-visit briefing that Iran should heed concerns over its weapons programs, and called for dialogue, not sanctions, to help secure solutions to nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea.

But China can wield this fresh muscle in its own spheres of influence in much less diplomatic fashion, such as the way it crudely tried to intervene in Zambia's upcoming presidential election. China's ambassador in Lusaka said Beijing might cut diplomatic relations with Zambia if voters elected the opposition candidate Michael Sata, who has referred to Taiwan as a "sovereign state" and criticised Chinese labour practices in Zambia.

In its advance publicity for Mr Wen's trip to Europe, Chinese media have focused on how he will boost Sino-European partnership by signing a raft of trade deals. The EU is China's biggest trading partner. Trade reached £64bn in the first six months of the year, nearly 21 per cent higher than a year earlier.

Li Ruiyu, who is in charge of European affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, said China was not yet ready for democracy and that illegal land grabs and forced resettlements had caused social unrest and were hindering progress toward China's version of democracy, which focuses on local elections in 680,000 villages.