Rifkind resolves to keep China visit on course

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN VINES

Hong Kong

STEVE CRAWSHAW

London

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, is making a determined effort not to have his visit to China overshadowed by Peking's fury over Channel 4's screening tomorrow, the day he arrives in the Chinese capital, of a chilling programme documenting the abuse of children in China's orphanages.

However a Foreign Office spokesman travelling with Mr Rifkind made it clear in Hong Kong last night that Britain would have no truck with any attempt to prevent the screening of the programme. He insisted that this was "entirely a matter for Channel 4" and believed that "there was no reason to believe it would affect the nature or effect of any of the meetings" the Foreign Secretary would hold in Peking.

Mr Rifkind's visit was conceived as part of the process of patching up differences over Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty next year, building on a cordial visit to Britain last October by Qian Qichen, the Chinese Foreign Minister.

However, human rights have been at the forefront of the problems in Sino- British relations and China has already indicated how it will respond to attempts by Mr Rifkind to discuss this issue. At the weekend China's Foreign Ministry issued a blistering statement attacking the Human Rights Watch/Asia report on the orphanages, on which Channel 4's Return to the Dying Rooms draws.

This is the second time in 12 months that China's treatment of children in orphanages has come under attack. After the showing of Channel 4's first report, The Dying Rooms, the junior Foreign Office minister Baroness Chalker raised British concerns about the matter during her visit to Peking for the international woman's conference last September. The Foreign Office says it is treating the new allegations as "serious and worrying" and says they will be studied carefully.

Meanwhile the Hong Kong government, which has been explicitly told by China to remain silent about Chinese affairs, issued its own statement on the report yesterday, saying that because the colony has "a caring society, people are naturally shocked by allegations of this nature". It added that the findings "clearly need to be investigated thoroughly and, if substantiated, steps taken to end such abuses".

Channel 4 yesterday made it clear it had no intention of backing down in the face of Chinese protests. The Chinese embassy wrote complaining about the film, and warning of damage to Britain's relations with China if it was screened. Channel 4 said yesterday: "There's no question. The screening will go ahead."

Foreign Office officials insisted they had not been approached over the issue: "It's not for the Government to become involved. We don't have a view. We wouldn't consider intervening."

Political pressure would certainly backfire. "If the Foreign Office rang up to complain about the potential damage to Sino-British relations, we'd send them away with a flea in their ear," a Channel 4 spokesman claimed yesterday.

Britain is treading a delicate path on the orphanage affair. It claims to emphasise the importance of human rights in China. But it does not wish to anger the Chinese and lose valuable contracts.

Liu Jianchao, press spokesman for the Chinese embassy, said he had "no comment" on whether there would be an approach to the Government. But he insisted that showing the film would "harm the mutual understanding between the Chinese and British people". The Dying Rooms had, he said, given a "distorted picture". Showing the latest film would "harm the atmosphere" between the two countries.

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