Diplomatic snub sours Chinese visit to France

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The Independent Online


A controversial visit to France by the Chinese prime minister, Li Peng, began in acrimony yesterday with a major diplomatic stand-off over human rights and murmurings of French disappointment over the size of business contracts agreed by the Chinese.

Mr Li, who is widely regarded as one of those responsible for sending the army into Tiananmen Square six years ago, was earlier the target of a protest demonstration by around 5,000 people, many of them Chinese and Tibetan exiles and Taiwanese students.

The demonstration had been timed to coincide with a scheduled meeting between Mr Li and the French prime minister, Alain Juppe, at which a number of major contracts were to be signed.

Mr Li, however, arrived more than two hours late for the meeting at the foreign ministry, keeping Mr Juppe - who is a stickler for punctuality - waiting and delaying the start of a formal banquet to which the cream of the French political and business world had been invited.

During the two hours, Mr Li was said to be at the Marigny Palace, which is opposite the Elysee and used as the guesthouse for heads of state and other foreign dignitaries.

No reason was given for his lateness, which appeared to be a deliberate sign of displeasure on Mr Li's part. Foreign ministry sources described the delay as "quite inappropriate".

In a further sign of diplomatic differences, the planned toasts by Mr Juppe and Mr Li at the start of the banquet, were dropped after Mr Juppe's office informed the Chinese that he intended to broach the question of human rights in China. Sources said Mr Li found this unacceptable and the agreed solution was the highly unusual decision to do without toasts.

Mr Li's four-day visit to France, the first by a Chinese head of government for 12 years, is all that remains of a planned three-nation European tour. It was reduced at the last minute, officially because Mr Li had urgent matters to attend to at home, but apparently for fear of human rights protests. In France, the visit has aroused strong opposition, uniting human rights groups, opposition MPs and trade unions in condemnation.

Forced on to the defensive, government ministers have justified the invitation to Mr Li by the value of contracts that would be signed and prospects of improving France's relatively small foothold in the Chinese market.

Yesterday, however, there was reported to be disappointment in business circles over the size of firm agreements reached. Aside from an order, worth up to pounds 1bn, for ten A320 Airbuses and an option on another 30 - the biggest contract China has awarded to a European aircraft builder - little new business was announced.

A contract due to be signed for the establishment of a Citroen plant in Wuhan is to be financed largely with French credits, and a number of hoped-for deals on gas distribution, electric cables and wheat exports were reported not to have been finalised.