In dealing with China, mistrust is the better part of diplomacy

Jonathan Mirsky, formerly of `The Times', says the softly, softly approach does not impress the Peking regime

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CHINA'S next premier, Zhu Rongji, the Politburo member who threatens to behead bankers who ignore his edicts, will visit Britain next month. As Teresa Poole reports today, the details of his life are sketchy. Yet his country has the Earth's largest population, one of its biggest economies, a sizeable army and global ambitions. Such a country requires constant, minute analysis.

But only bare statistics are available. Secrecy extends to the correct date for the founding of the Communist Party, how many millions died because of Mao's economic fantasies during history's worst-ever famine between 1959 and 1961, or how many demonstrators were killed during Tiananmen. Foreigners who seek information on these matters are regarded in Peking as "unfriendly" or "anti-China".

The questions must be asked. Zhu Rongji's flacks have persuaded many Westerners that he is an economic genius. Perhaps. What are the facts of Mr Zhu's life - was he in detention for 20 years during the Maoist era; can a man bred in a command society champion a market economy?

At the very least, British people need to understand how their officials deal with Chinese affairs. It is not an encouraging story. Last week, when China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, met Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary showed Mr Wei a list of 10 political prisoners. He hoped European Union countries could ask Peking about their circumstances. Did Mr Wei know anything about them? Well, yes. He had been released in mid- November, but his name was still on the list.

How seriously can the British Government take human rights in China, if it can't keep lists of political prisoners up to date? And accurate. In 1991 there were over 200 names on the list. It is not that prisoners have been released, like the fortunate Mr Wei. International pressure on Peking, never great, has lessened.

This week in Geneva, Mr Cook and Mr Blair participated in the EU decision not to permit any resolutions criticising Peking's human rights record. They claim that with the Chinese "quiet diplomacy rather than confrontation" gets results. Their examples are the release of Mr Wei and the upcoming visit of the UN's Mary Robinson to Peking.

But what will she discover? Her visit is likely to resemble the recent trip to China by the Catholic priest, the evangelical minister and the rabbi sent by President Clinton. They saw only "official" religious leaders and establishments. Or perhaps it will follow the itinerary of those EU diplomats who visited prisons in which the inmate chosen for exhibition had a bed, a loo, and gold fish bowl in his cell. Typical?

As for Mr Wei, he maintains it was the international clamour of many years that got him out, the annual possibility of a Nobel Prize, and Washington telling the Chinese that unless Mr Wei was released, President Jiang Zemin would not get the full White House welcome he eventually received last October. Mr Wei asked Robin Cook to give him an example of how discreet bargaining has worked; according to Mr Wei, the Foreign Secretary admitted he didn't have one handy.

Western leaders say they bring up human rights at every meeting with the Chinese. But not invariably. Once in Hong Kong I asked an American Under-Secretary of Commerce, just arrived from Peking, whether he had raised human rights with his Chinese opposite numbers. "No, human rights weren't on my list." When I noted that even Schindler had had a little list he rose to his feet with his fists clenched.

In September 1991 John Major went to Peking to sign a memorandum of understanding about the new Hong Kong airport, the first Western leader to visit China since Tiananmen. He was carrying a list of political prisoners furnished by Amnesty. On the plane he talked to me about the list and a possible visit to London by the Dalai Lama, asking what I thought would happen when he raised human rights with Premier Li Peng. At press conferences Mr Major made much of his confrontation with Mr Li and told us that human rights were at the centre of his China policy. Although a British embassy official asked me where the major Peking prison for dissidents was - he had, after all, only been in Peking for two years - I did believe an effort was being made.

Even when Sir Percy Cradock, the Prime Minister's major foreign policy advisor, assured reporters in the British ambassador's garden that the human rights discussions were "just froth ... The airport is the key agreement," I put this down to Sir Percy's famous pragmatism.

It was only after Mr Major's party arrived in Hong Kong that I learnt, from a colonial policy secretary, present at all the negotiations, that human rights had been only diffidently raised with the Chinese. They were given to understand that this was an issue at home but not a central matter in the negotiations.

This is how it works. The principals discuss. At some point the senior western negotiator informs the Chinese side that a relatively junior official will hand to his Chinese opposite number a list of human rights concerns. Little or no further discussion of human rights occurs. At the end of the meeting the foreign position paper is handed over, and the Western leader goes out to tell the press that he forcefully raised human rights with the Chinese.

This is not normal practice with other countries. "We really tell them off them in Nigeria, for example, or in Bosnia," said a diplomat. "But there's this special exception for China. The Chinese have convinced us that confrontation intrudes into their sovereignty. We play along."

When I reported this to Mr Wei last week, he chuckled mordantly. He recounted a conversation during his brief release from prison in 1993 designed to persuade the International Olympic Committee to award China the 2000 Olympics (the ploy failed). A Public Security officer had come to see him. "Wei, you are wasting your time hurling yourself against the rock of human rights. Some of us want to help you. But your friends from western countries - when they come to Beijing they leave this to their junior secretaries. It's not serious. We laugh at them."

Mr Wei insists that real pressure works with the Chinese. It got him out and it caused the Chinese to back away from Taiwan in 1996 when the Americans sent two naval battle groups near the island.

This is where the way China is reported can make a difference. At least the public knows what's happening, and officials know that we know. Ernest Hemingway once advised young reporters conducting interviews to "Keep asking yourself `Why is this sonofabitch lying to me?'". On China his further dictum also holds: keep your anti-bullshit detector running.

The author recently resigned as China Writer for `The Times'

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