Germans pull the red carpet on Li: Politicians and public alike will not give the Chinese leader peace over human rights, writes Steve Crawshaw in Bonn

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The Independent Online
A RED-CARPET visit to Germany by the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, spiralled into diplomatic chaos yesterday after Mr Li's patience repeatedly snapped. He was unhappy at suggestions that Peking's record on human rights might be improved.

Mr Li cancelled a visit to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at the last moment, apparently indignant that he might come face-to-face with protesters carrying placards referring to the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

The Mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, was left pacing up and down waiting for Mr Li before he learnt that the Chinese visitor had already left for the airport to go to his next destination, Weimar.

A few hours later, Mr Li broke off his visit to Goethe's home town, partly because of a reference in a speech to the importance of 'dignity and freedom'. Mr Li apparently took this comment - made by the president of the Foundation for Weimar Classicism, when showing Goethe's house to the visitor - as a personal insult.

Angered by the speech, and by yet more demonstrators, he then stood up his planned host, the regional prime minister, Bernhard Vogel, who was due to give him lunch.

From Weimar, he went to Munich, where further diplomatic upsets were pre-programmed.

Mr Li had already cancelled a planned meeting today with the Mayor of Munich, Christian Ude, who caused offence by saying that the issue of human rights would figure in his talks with the Chinese leaders.

The week-long visit has suffered from diplomatic difficulties from the start. Criticism came not just from the opposition, but also from within the ranks of the ruling Christian Democrats.

There was considerable unease about rolling out the red carpet for the man seen as primarily responsible for the massacre of Chinese pro-democracy protesters five years ago last month.

Germany finds itself torn between the desire not to allow Mr Li's political intransigence to be rewarded on the one hand, and by the desire to strike lucrative deals with Peking on the other.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's welcome speech to Mr Li was full of warm words about the Chinese economy and the 'solid basis' of the relationship between Germany and China. Tucked towards the bottom of his speech, he devoted a couple of paragraphs to human rights, 'which we in Germany attach great importance to'.

But Mr Li appeared to take a different view. 'Naturally,' he said, China respects human rights. But, he added, 'What we will not permit is interference, by means of human rights, in our internal affairs.'

Mr Li noted, with barbed sweetness, that he did not have 'the least impression' that Mr Kohl sought to interfere in this way.

Germany is easily China's most important trading partner in Europe. A number of crucial contracts were signed this week, including an agreement with Siemens for the construction of a pounds 650m power station. German trade with China last year was worth almost pounds 10bn, up by around a third on the previous year.

Despite all the talk of European unity, it seemed clear this week that Mr Kohl - whose country took over the EU presidency this month - was batting for Germany, not for Europe.

And yet, foreign policy in Germany, more than elsewhere in Europe, is partly driven by a sense of morality - meaning that straightforward arguments about 'national interests' are more difficult to own up to, when defending business with unpleasant regimes.

The strongest criticism of the red-carpet treatment for the Communist leader has come from the opposition Social Democrats and the radical Greens.

Among the demonstrators at yesterday's protest near the Brandenburg Gate was Barbel Bohley, a leader of the East German opposition in 1989.

Mr Li is especially unpopular in the east: the threat of a 'China solution' hung heavily over East Germany in the autumn of 1989, and was only narrowly averted on at least one occasion. East German Communist leaders spoke admiringly of Mr Li's lethal clampdown at the time.