Gordon Brown arrived in China last night on a visit designed to boost business links, but was accused of soft-pedalling over the world's concerns about human rights in the country.
The Prime Minister's spokesman said that Mr Brown would raise human rights in a general sense during two days of talks with Chinese leaders.
But British officials admitted the issue would not be central to his discussions.
They insisted that human rights would be debated fully in an annual session involving officials from the two countries on 28 January. But Mr Brown's stance drew criticism from Tory politicians. Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, accused Mr Brown of "humbug" because he wanted to stop Zimbabwe's forthcoming cricket tour to England but would not back calls for a boycott of this summer's Beijing Olympics.
"You can't cherry-pick sports boycotts", said Mr McMillan-Scott.
He said the Olympics should be boycotted because of China's crackdown against political dissidents.
"It is time for the civilised world to wake up to what is really happening in the hidden China, a terror state like no other, which has killed some 80 million of its own people since 1949," he said.
His officials said the Prime Minister recognised that democracy took different forms and what mattered was "accountable government". They stressed that he would push China – who like Britain holds veto power on the UN Security Council – to use its close links with Sudan to press for a solution to the Darfur crisis and for the success of stalled peace talks.
China also has influence in Burma, and Mr Brown will use his visit to renew pressure on the Burmese regime over human rights there. The Burmese regime, according to Britain's ambassador in Rangoon, Mark Canning, said the junta was "playing a canny game" when it came to reform and liberalisation and the international community needed to focus on the lack of progress. Many of the monks, who had been in the vanguard of the pro-democracy protests last year, "have been disrobed and sent packing to rural villages", Mr Canning said yesterday. Only a fraction of the country's 400,000 Buddhist clerics can now be seen on the streets.
Up to 1,000 people, those the regime consider to be leaders of the resistance, are still being held in prison, often under appalling conditions, said Mr Canning. And arrests have continued while the regime professes to be willing to hold dialogue with the opposition.
In what is regarded as a blatant attempt to prevent people from gaining access to independent reporting, the military government is threatening to raise the licence fee for satellite TVs from the equivalent of £2.50 to £400 a year, said Mr Canning. The proposed figure is three times the Burmese national salary, and the measure if implemented, will, in effect, mean the vast majority of the population will be left dependent on the censored domestic media.
Mr Brown's main focus on his first trip to China as Prime Minister will be to forge closer links that will increase Britain's trade in goods and services with China from £20bn to £30bn by 2010.
With the Chinese economy expected to grow by 10 per cent this year, British officials believe that as it moves on from specialising in manufacturing, it will open up big opportunities for British firms in areas such as financial, legal and professional services.
Mr Brown will press the Chinese to extend what he believes is a natural partnership between two nations with complementary strengths by opening their markets to Britain's services industries.
He will acknowledge China's strength on the global political stage, calling for it to tackle climate change while recognising that the measures required should not shackle its growth.
He is accompanied on his trip by 25 prominent businessmen including the Virgin boss, Sir Richard Branson, and the director general of the Confederation of British industry (CBI), Richard Lambert.
John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business, and the Trade Promotion minister, Lord Jones of Birmingham, will also be present. The British delegation will then move on to India, where Mr Brown hopes to sign business deals worth about £2.25bn and will announce plans to train 750,000 English teachers there over the next five years. Mr Brown will use his visit to both countries to promote English as "the world's language".
He announced yesterday that British Council, which promotes British culture abroad, is to set up a website to provide internet-based studies for both teachers and students.
The initial focus will be on China, with the aim of securing one million hits a month on the website.
Mr Brown said: "I believe that, with the right help, we will have a situation by 2025 where the number of English speakers in China exceeds the number of speakers of English as a first language in all of the rest of the world. English does not make us all the same – nor should it, for we honour who we distinctly are.
"But language makes it possible for us to speak to each other, to better understand each other. And so it is a powerful force not just for economics, business and trade, but for mutual respect and progress."
How Merkel confronted Beijing
She isn't called Germany's "Iron Lady" for nothing. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor born and raised in former Communist East Germany, gave Vladimir Putin a public handbagging at a Russia-EU summit for suppressing a demonstration. She incurred China's wrath by scheduling the first meeting of a German leader with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, against the advice of her officials; and was photographed welcoming him to her office in September. Two official meetings between German and Chinese government officials were cancelled by China in response. Nobody was fooled when China cited "technical reasons". China also lodged a protest with the German ambassador to Beijing, saying relations had been "seriously damaged". On her first visit to China as Chancellor, in May 2006, she raised China's human rights record – and let everyone know she had done so. Before her second visit she made it clear that she would not avoid awkward issues. She spoke out then about what China could do to help curb the "terrible human rights abuses" in Darfur through its contacts with Sudan. That trip – just one month before her meeting with the Dalai Lama – was overshadowed by reports that China had launched a cyberattack on the Chancellery and three German ministries.
Gordon Brown is being urged by the Free Tibet Campaign to condemn China's "systemic repression" of human rights in Tibet and to defy the Chinese by meeting the Dalai Lama. In October, monasteries were surrounded by Chinese troops, and monks and nuns forced to denounce the Buddhist spiritual leader.
Human Rights Watch wants China to implement fully new regulations giving accredited foreign journalists expanded freedom to report. Should China not do so by April, the group says senior British officials should boycott the opening or closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
Although a Chinese woman is suing the authorities for being forced to abort her baby girl when nine months pregnant, China's one-child policy is enforced. Hundreds of people in Hubei, central China, were expelled from the Communist Party for violating the policy.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, yet Christians and Muslim individuals and groups are silenced. Followers of the Falun Gong still face arrest and torture. Turkic Muslim Uighurs in north-west China are repressed in the name of the "war on terror".