Leading article: The benefits and dangers of a closer relationship

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The Independent Online

China has arrived in some force in Britain this week. The delegation from Beijing consists of 50 government officials, 100 business leaders and (in spirit at least) two giant pandas. The group is also headed by the rising power of Chinese politics: Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.

Yesterday it was confirmed that two pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang, will be transferred from China to Edinburgh Zoo. Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador in London, described this as a gift that will "bring our two people closer together".

But charismatic fauna aside, this is trip about business. The delegation has already visited Germany and Spain, where Mr Li has been lobbying for the relaxation of European Union rules that limit transfers of high-technology equipment that could have a dual military and civilian use.

It has also been an occasion to seal some deals. The £6.4m energy agreement signed yesterday, in particular, is to be welcomed. Technology pioneered in Scotland to generate electricity from domestic refuse will be used at a new renewable energy conservation plant in China. This is the sort of green economic development that can benefit both countries.

A few days ago Mr Li said that Germany and China will deepen co-operation on low-carbon technology and energy-efficient industry. Britain too should welcome this. Unless China industrialises in a lesscarbon-intensive manner than the West,the chances of preventing runaway climate change fall from slim to zero.

China is helping out the eurozone economy too, which is indirectly beneficial to Britain. Vice-Premier Li signed €5.7bn of trade deals with Spain at the weekend and reaffirmed that China will continue to buy up Spanish government bonds despite the market panic over eurozone periphery debt.

The links between our countries are important and should be nurtured. Chinese students who come to the UK are a great mutual benefit, bringing in considerable income to our universities and creating personal links that should prove a tremendous economic asset in the years to come.

Yet, unusually, there is to be no press conference to coincide with this high-level Chinese visit. This cannot be put down to a lack of time, since the delegation does not leave until Wednesday. The word is that the Chinese did not want a conference for fear of Mr Li being asked awkward questions about human rights abuses in China, in particular the vindictive treatment of the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Either way, the British people have been denied an opportunity to get a closer look at the man who is likely to be the next Chinese premier. This is regrettable. Press conferences are moments of democratic scrutiny. It might suit the Chinese to communicate with the public by releasing statements and eliminating the possibility of impertinent questions, but it should not suit our own Government.

The Coalition is determined to get close to China for economic reasons. It has taken a gamble that Britain will be able to export its way to recovery over the next five years. And with the European economy stuttering, China takes on a still more crucial role. There is nothing wrong with facilitating better relations between our nations and encouraging trade and technology transfers that can benefit both of our peoples (not to mention the planet). But there is a fine line between seeking economic links with an autocratic state like China and acting in a subservient manner. The Government needs to be extremely careful that, in its haste to increase trade with China, it does not cross that line.

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