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Danes court China's fury and shame the EU by speaking out on rights

The wrath of China found a new target yesterday when Denmark decided to press ahead with a United Nations motion in Geneva later this week, condemning Peking's human rights record. "We still hope Denmark will think twice and will think seriously about the consequences of such action," said the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Shen Guofang.

"If it persists, I can say that relations between China and Denmark will be seriously damaged in either the political or the economic and trade areas ... If Denmark really insists on doing this, it will end up as the biggest loser."

Denmark stepped into the breach at the weekend after France effectively vetoed a joint European Union motion censuring Peking at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The Danes showed no sign yesterday of buckling under pressure. "We have made our decision," said Niels Helveg Petersen, the Danish Foreign Minister.

Not for the first time, the EU's failure to adopt a united stance has raised doubts about the 15-nation bloc's ability to pursue a common foreign policy, while exposing differences between the EU's bigger and smaller states. To the dismay of those who want the EU to speak coherently, and with one voice to the world, a clear rift has now opened up among the member states on how best to address China's human rights record.

France was primarily responsible for killing off the joint EU initiative. But Germany, Italy and Spain expressed sympathy with the French view that dialogue is better than confrontation. "It is more important to achieve specific progress than to agree on resolutions which have no success," said Germany's Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel.

However, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans van Mierlo, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the EU would be guilty of double standards if it took a soft line towards China but was tough on smaller countries which were less important in commercial terms. "This is not compatible with the universality of human rights," he said.

Every year since 1990, China has garnered the support of enough Asian neighbours and developing countries to block the annual attempt by the EU and the US to censure its record. Irrespective of the change in position of up to four European countries, this year's motion would have had little chance of passing.

But the Geneva meeting is seen by Peking as an annual public torment, and China has lobbied furiously behind the scenes to thwart the move. The fact that the EU no longer has a consensus on the motion will have delighted the Chinese government and dismayed the United States, which yesterday praised Denmark for sticking to its principles.

Over the past year, China has become more sophisticated in the way it argues its case on human rights, though without offering any actual concessions. By stressing the opportunity for dialogue, and highlighting recent amendments to its criminal and civil laws, it has managed to blunt the impact of the harsh jail sentences it gives dissidents and the absolute restriction on independent political thought in China.

Peking's willingness to threaten countries, such as Denmark, with economic repercussions has proved divisive.

President Jacques Chirac is due in Peking in May, and France is hopeful of finalising various business contracts during the state visit.

In a sign that China is pleased with France, the French Defence Minister, Charles Millon, received a warm reception in Peking yesterday from the Prime Minister, Li Peng. Chinese television quoted Mr Li praising France for refusing to co-sponsor the UN resolution.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry yesterday laid on a panel of three Chinese human rights scholars to brief the foreign media on what they portrayed as big improvements in human rights in China since the economic reforms started in 1979. While it is probably true that Chinese people enjoy more freedom now than at any time since 1949, the persuasiveness of the argument is limited.

Few Western specialists accept China's insistence that it has no political prisoners, that dissidents such as Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng are "common criminals" and that there is no censorship of the media in China.