Fragile relations, handle with care

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The Independent Online

ON HIS last visit to Britain, Jiang Zemin insisted on riding the Tube to get a real dose of London. Back then, he was the mayor of Shanghai and his short trip on the Circle Line was little more than a minor headache for British security. But 13 years on, Mr Jiang is today making the first state visit to Britain by a Chinese president and the security stakes are far, far higher.

ON HIS last visit to Britain, Jiang Zemin insisted on riding the Tube to get a real dose of London. Back then, he was the mayor of Shanghai and his short trip on the Circle Line was little more than a minor headache for British security. But 13 years on, Mr Jiang is today making the first state visit to Britain by a Chinese president and the security stakes are far, far higher.

Protesters from pro-Tibetan and human rights groups, as well as the Falun Gong movement, which was outlawed in China in July, are determined to make their voices heard during the four-day visit. But British officials do not want a rerun of the President's visit to Switzerland in March, when Mr Jiang broke off an outdoor speech under challenge by demonstrators and fumed toSwiss leaders that they had "lost a good friend".

British officials are also anxious to avoid a repetition of events during the visit to London by the Japanese Emperor Akihito last year when hundreds of former prisoners of war turned their backs as he rode past with the Queen in an open-topped carriage.

Competing priorities of Chinese pride, human rights and British business interests mean there is little margin for error during the meticulously planned state visit. But both London and Peking hope Mr Jiang's stay at Buckingham Palace will mark the start of a new era in relations: in past decades, ties have been nothing if not turbulent, especially over the 1997 return of Hong Kong and, more recently, over the Nato bombing of Peking's embassy in Belgrade.

In one of the more notable efforts to accommodate the Chinese leader, Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, has not been invited to Mr Jiang's state banquet at Buckingham Palace tonight. Mr Patten was branded a "whore" and a "sinner for 10,000 years" by Peking after spats with the Chinese government in the run-up to Hong Kong's handover. But both sides have since been at pains to point out that the former British territory is no longer an issue.

What will be an issue, especially during Mr Jiang's meeting on Thursday with Tony Blair, is China's lengthy efforts to gain entrance into the World Trade Organisation. China broke off WTO talks with the European Union and the US after Nato accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on 7 May. Both sets of talks have now resumed, but the deadline for entry next month - when a new round of trade protocol discussions begins - is approaching, and key financial and agricultural deals have yet to be struck.

According to Chinese officials, Washington's refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear testing will also be on the agenda, with Peking looking to form a united front with Europe to challenge the American position. China has been focusing on good ties with Britain and France - which is Mr Jiang's next stop - to try to counterbalance its often stormy relations with the US.

As Britain is the biggest European investor in China, but only exports half the value of Chinese imports, bilateral economic issues will also be prominent. The Chinese foreign trade minister, Shi Guangsheng, has been holding talks in London since late last week and British business has been pushing for Chinese investment to start.

Hopes that China will follow Japanese and South Korean investors into Britain are such that Liverpool chamber of commerce has already set up an office in Mr Jiang's power base of Shanghai to attract the small but growing number of Chinese firms looking to invest overseas.

But the thorny issue of China's human rights is the one most likely to dominate Mr Jiang's tour. China defends its rocky rights record on the basis that material conditions have improved greatly in the past two decades. But the British branch of Amnesty International has already slammed London for its "muted appraisal" of the situation in China.

Pro-Tibetan groups protesting against Peking's heavy-handed rule of the region have warned that they will be making their presence felt throughout the visit. Alison Reynolds, the director of the Free Tibet Campaign, said her group was hoping to hold protests at every venue attended by the President to ensure he sees the Tibetan flag. "We think the visit is deeply inappropriate considering the current climate of repression in Tibet," she said.

Practitioners of Falun Gongare also planning protests in an attempt to persuade Mr Jiang to lift the ban imposed on the movement. They hope to hold a candlelight vigil in central London during the state banquet.

Political dissident groups say they are saving most of their energies for France, where there is a bigger population of Chinese exiles, but the chances of Mr Jiang escaping protests during his visits to the Millennium Dome, the Globe Theatre, and Cambridge look slim. Whatever his reaction, it is sure to set the tone of Anglo-Chinese relations into the 21st century.

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