Clifford Coonan: The PM's dilemma over challenging China's rulers

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The Independent Online

It is David Cameron's first visit to China as Prime Minister, and while his Chinese hosts are gearing up for a trade-focused meeting, he will have to raise uncomfortable issues, notably human rights.

By far the thorniest issue in China's relations with the West is the award of the Nobel peace prize to activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, who has been jailed for 11 years for subversion. EU diplomats have been warned off attending the prize-giving ceremony next month in Oslo.

Mr Cameron is almost certain to bring up human rights, and has promised not to shy away from the issue. He will probably do so within the context of China's economic growth. Western leaders, when they do address China's human rights record in public, frame the matter as being in China's interests: that a country which respects human rights has more of a chance long-term of functioning as a desirable trading partner.

Mr Cameron is meeting both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, but the focus of his visit, especially as the UK economy stutters, will be a China-Britain commercial summit. These days senior diplomats often handle human rights issues when world leaders come calling, and the politicians focus on the economy, which has more political upside.

President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have ignored human rights during Hu Jintao's visit to Paris last week, which produced £14bn of deals for French industry, although he insists he mentioned it as part of France's efforts to "gently" open up China.

But the award of the Nobel prize to Mr Liu has given enormous profile to China's human rights record.

To visit China and ignore the matter would irritate human rights defenders and look slightly bizarre, like ignoring a giant gorilla sitting in the corner of the meeting room. Some leaders are more direct. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the repressive atmosphere of East Germany, is said to produce a list of names and ask very direct questions during briefings with Chinese leaders. Unsurprisingly, Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to Britain, said enhancing economic relations would be the priority of this visit.

Whatever happens, Mr Cameron is facing a delicate balancing act between representing Britain's interests to a China very much in the ascendant economically, and protesting against its human rights policies.