China gloats over UK decline

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PEKING - Venting its wrath against London, China said yesterday Britain was on a long-term political and economic decline and faced a crisis with its most important diplomatic partners - Washington, Europe and the Commonwealth.

In a signed essay on its international page, the Communist Party flagship People's Daily called these the three main foreign-policy challenges facing John Major's government. Accompanying the essay was a caustic cartoon of a skinny old near-sighted lion with greying mane, spectacles and walking-stick staring at a portrait of himself in an earlier age as a ferocious, roaring lion with sharp teeth and black mane. 'To remember is unbearable,' the caption read.

Diplomats said the article reflected Peking's anger at London's refusal to drop efforts to widen Hong Kong democracy before the colony's 1997 return to China.

The newspaper said Britain emerged as one of the victors of the Second World War and the capitalist world's number-two economic superpower in the early post-war years. 'But the glorious days of Britain are in the past. Economic figures show that its industry is fast declining, its share of world manufacturing output, trade and gross national product is dropping rapidly,' it said.

'In recent years this economic decline has become serious, so that now it is very hard to reverse.' Britain's decline had been hastened by the end of the Cold War, it said, because the influence of economic power was growing rapidly while that of military power waned.

It was this unshakeable reality that had sparked Britain's foreign- affairs crisis, People's Daily writer Chen Tean argued. Since the Second World War, he said, Britain had never been more than a reluctant member of Europe and remained hesitant and uncommitted to European unity despite the rise of Germany as a unified and increasingly influential power.

And there was strain in London's vaunted 'special relationship' with the United States, which had been cultivating closer links with Germany and Asia. London and Washington had growing differences on economic and political policy, it said, diverging over the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

The paper said British power and credibility were slipping in the Commonwealth, citing Australia's plans to become a republic.

China, under fire for its human rights record, said yesterday it had freed three dissidents - Xiao Bin, Liao Yiwu and Ding Junze - who had been jailed for their actions during the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests. The move follows US demands that Peking improve human rights if it wants to keep its favourable trading status, worth billions of dollars each year.