Leading article: Pomp, circumstance and diplomacy

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The Independent Online

If anything, the appetite for confronting Beijing on its appalling human rights record has diminished in the six years since Hu Jintao's predecessor Jiang Zemin was welcomed on a state visit to this country. The Government is nervous of upsetting China's leaders, preferring instead to lay on royal banquets and hang out the bunting, while broaching "sensitive" matters such as China's torture of political and religious dissidents in muted tones behind closed doors, if at all.

Britain is not alone in turning a blind eye to the authoritarian excesses of China's regime. After all, China will probably be the world's second biggest economy within the next 15 years, and Mr Blair, like other Western leaders, wants a slice of the economic action. It is not only the global workshop on which we increasingly rely for cheap underwear and electronic goods; as its prosperity rises, China is also buying more and more from us.

It is not just the rise in China's economic power that has altered the dynamic. Its growth as a consumer of oil has heightened its influence over such geo-political questions as how the world deals with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, or Sudan's conduct in Darfur. But amid uncertainty over how China's dual system of economic freedom and political repression will evolve, it would be foolish to abandon a policy of constructive engagement. This week's visit might serve, for example, to pressure China on the forthcoming world trade talks and over the environmental cost of its economic success.

The trouble is that the results of constructive dialogue on human rights have been so abysmal. Far from ushering in the big political reforms many predicted when he came to power in 2003, Mr Hu has overseen an increase in restrictions on the freedom of expression and information. Political, religious and environment dissidents have suffered violence, incarceration and torture. The labour conditions, meanwhile, which help China to compete so efficiently are often shameful.

We do still have political muscle to flex with the Chinese. Mr Hu for example, is seeking Britain's support for the lifting of the arms embargo imposed by the EU on China after Tiananmen Square. In the privacy of their one-to-one meetings Mr Blair must rule out any such concession at this stage, while demanding that China at the very least, begin to address its lamentable record on political and religious freedom.