Leading article: The message Mr Brown should take to Beijing

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The Independent Online

A delay due to a crash-landed plane on the runway made for an auspicious start to Gordon Brown's first major overseas trip as Prime Minister. But No 10 has a great deal invested in this visit, as the constellation of business leaders accompanying him showed. The size and seniority of the delegation suggested not only that commerce would be central to this visit, but that he intends to plant Britain, with its still relatively healthy official economic indicators, firmly on Beijing's global investment map.

Of course, China is increasingly an economic powerhouse and British companies already have significant interests there that could benefit from promotion at Prime Minister level. And the glaring trade gap with China is something that could do with addressing. It also makes sense for the Prime Minister to ensure that Britain's interest in this soaring economy are not eclipsed by those of our European partners. The German Chancellor and the French President made high-profile visits to China last year, where they made representations about the ballooning trade imbalance. China is probably not alone in sometimes evincing confusion about where Britain fits into Europe, given that it is a member of the EU, but not of the eurozone.

We hope, though, that business is not all the Prime Minister intends his visit to achieve. There are serious diplomatic and human rights issues that Mr Brown has a responsibility to tackle. Although this is often obscured by the glitz of its economic miracle, China is far from being a free or democratic country. There are, as Amnesty International and others record, unknown numbers of political prisoners. China not only preserves the death penalty, but is the world's most prolific executioner. It has never held anything like a democratic election; its courts are overseen by the Communist Party, and the internet is subject to sweeping and sophisticated censorship – in which, disgracefully, some of powerful Western companies have acquiesced.

And we have still not mentioned the restrictions on free movement, curbs on trade unions and the capricious exercise of power that places ruthless gigantism before the most basic considerations of humanity. Development always has rough edges, but China's are probably as rough as they come.

China's leaders must also be reminded of the plight of Tibet and the Dalai Lama: rising living standards have not dulled the cultural and religious oppression exerted by Beijing. Chancellor Merkel set the European standard here for voicing principled condemnation that China was unable to ignore.

But Mr Brown also has a chance to set out for China some of the ways in which its new economic clout could open diplomatic doors. Beijing has recently made encouraging noises about doing more to combat climate change, but it still seems far from fully appreciating its obligations. It has played a positive role in nuclear negotiations with North Korea. But it has been considerably less helpful with countries such as Burma and Sudan (over Darfur). A shift here would strengthen the international consensus and also help to bring China in from the cold.

China's script for this visit is bound to include promotion of the Beijing Olympics, especially now that London is to host the Games in 2012. While a chance for China to show off its achievements, however, the Olympics will also expose the country to unprecedented scrutiny. Mr Brown should offer a foretaste of what China can expect, pressing the point that the Olympic spirit relates not just to sporting prowess, but to less tangible human values as well. In so doing, he would set down a marker that could also enhance his standing at home.