Li vents wrath on Christopher: Human rights rift deepens between China and US

RELATIONS between China and the United States took an ominous turn yesterday when the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Peng, told the visiting US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, that 'China will never accept the US human rights concepts'. Mr Li defied Washington's threat to revoke China's beneficial trading status, saying: 'The US will suffer no less than China'.

The first day of discussions ended with sharp words from both sides. The senior US official with responsiblity for China, Winston Lord, said Chinese accusations that the US had cast 'shadows' on the visit 'was really Alice in Wonderland', given the spate of detentions of dissidents. '(Our) hosts certainly didn't offer the traditional Chinese hospitality in terms of atmosphere in advance.'

Aides described how, after a morning meeting and a working lunch with his counterpart, Mr Christopher had told Qian Qichen that 'he wished the meeting had been as good as the lunch'.

While officials clashed behind closed doors, out on the streets of Peking a blanket security clampdown was in place. Green-uniformed police swarmed in the area around the US embassy, and there was a much heavier police presence in many parts of the city. In the university area, plain-clothes security officials were in evidence, and access to campuses was more difficult.

The day started badly when Mr Qian told the US delegation that its human rights envoy, John Shattuck, had violated Chinese law earlier this month when he met China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng. The meeting incensed the Chinese government.

Mr Li, in his afternoon meeting with Mr Christopher, declared that 'history has already proved that it is futile to apply pressure against China'. If relations between the two countries were good, then US business would face 'a historic opportunity'.

If the US revoked China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status, it 'will lose its share of the big Chinese market'. China could live with the economic consequences of no MFN, and would adjust, Mr Li explained.

The Chinese government is going to extraordinary lengths to stop dissidents and activists from talking to the US delegation, or even to foreign reporters. Buildings where well- known dissidents live were virtually cordoned off by security police.

The family of Xu Liangling, an elderly scientist who was one of a group of intellectuals who last week issued a letter calling for improved human rights, said by telephone that no one was being allowed into their house.

The cultural divide over human rights seemed to sharpen yesterday. Mr Li said it was 'unfair' for developed countries to impose their human rights concepts on developing countries.

Mr Lord said: 'We're not telling China to be like America. We are talking about universal rights, arbitary arrests and torture, which have nothing to do with nationality.'