Leading article: Our Prime Minister must be braver

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The Independent Online

The Supreme Leader deserves the grateful thanks of the hard-working families of his nation for taking a message of fraternal goodwill to the Chinese people. As he braved the hazards of broken planes on the Heathrow apron and the sub-zero freezing fog of Beijing, Gordon Brown's work rate and disdain for sleep put Comrade Stakhanov to shame. No doubt he cursed the Private Eye caricature of him as a Marxist-Leninist dictator when reviewing a guard of honour in the marbled splendour of the Great Hall of the People.

It is a caricature that might have encouraged accompanying journalists to adopt a tone of world-weary cynicism in reporting his cursory attention to the issue of human rights in his public discussions with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister. Yet it is worth giving Mr Brown credit for getting some things right.

The most important was his announcement, as he set off on Friday, of a plan for the British Council to use the internet to teach English to even more of the world. That was the right response to last week's Russian bullying of Stephen Kinnock, head of the British Council in St Petersburg. And it was also the right way to set the tone for Mr Brown's trip to China and India. One huge advantage Britain has, in engaging with the economic superpowers of the future, is the English language.

It is the free exchange of ideas that is going to push China towards democracy. And it will be internal democratic pressures that will bring the Chinese government to respect human rights in China and around the world. At the moment, the regime is trying to control the free flow of ideas and information on the internet with what has been called the Great Firewall of China. This is futile; and the more Chinese people who know English, the language of the internet, the more futile it is. Indeed, the Chinese leadership, while keeping one finger in the dyke of cultural isolation, is using the other hand to undermine the wall. Learning English is compulsory in Chinese schools from age six, so Mr Brown is pushing at an open sluice gate.

Nor is it simply the free trade in ideas that will engender respect for human rights in China; it is free trade in goods and services. This newspaper would have preferred Mr Brown to have taken a more robust line with Mr Wen. Tony Blair was overly courteous in his dealings with the dictators of Tiananmen Square; Mr Brown had the chance to adopt a more courageous posture.

It would have been braver to have mentioned Tibet specifically, rather than pretending that it is included under the heading of "human rights". It would have been braver to have used the word Burma in public. It was China's economic interest in stable relations with the Burmese junta that prevented an effective international response to the democratic revolt there last year. It would have been braver to have raised Darfur publicly. China and Russia have consistently used their vetoes at the United Nations to block attempts to put pressure on the government of Sudan.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was much tougher on her recent visit, saying that the world would be watching China's human rights record in the run-up to the Olympics.

As Rodric Braithwaite illustrates today, British politicians raising human rights issues abroad can be perceived as colonial finger-wagging but, without such plain speaking, Mr Brown came across as a supplicant. The overall message of his trip seemed to be that Britain would like a share in the vast capitalist gold mine that is modern China. We all know how important China's sovereign wealth is in easing the liquidity crisis of Western money markets. And, by travelling with Sir Richard Branson and the head of Barclays bank, Mr Brown gave the appearance of heading a sales team for UK plc and City of London Inc. No harm in that, but the message needs to be balanced.

We want things from the Chinese: access to their markets, co-operation in minimising climate change, help in defending human rights around the world. But they also want things from us. Above all, they want the approval and respect of the world at the Olympic Games in August.

The most unexpected feature of Mr Brown's visit this weekend has been the smog that covers Beijing and the Olympic site – so thick that the British press corps were coughing and spluttering. Who knows what the pollution will be like in high summer? If nothing else, the smog will focus minds the world over on the environmental impact of China's industrialisation.

Concerns over air quality at the Olympics will be a more effective spur to action in the short term than anything that smacks of telling the Chinese that they cannot aspire to Western lifestyles for the sake of the planet. More generally, the Olympics give the West leverage, and Mr Brown should not be afraid to use it.