It's time Mr Cook applied his ethics to China

An angry dissident brings a message for us all: defend human rights, whatever it costs
Click to follow
FATE has delivered The Times an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the robustness of its China coverage, forcefully reaffirmed yesterday by its editor Peter Stothard. Next week Wei Jingsheng, China's Sakharov, comes to Britain. The arrival from the US of the People's Republic's leading dissident, exiled after18 years in jail, to give a lecture at St Anthony's College, Oxford, on Tuesday and meet Robin Cook on Wednesday, is an important event. Wei has, as it happens, become unwittingly caught up in Rupert Murdoch's pervasive China interests. He was to have contributed a chapter to a book which Harper Collins has put on hold after the indefensible dumping of East and West by Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong. The second book was planned to commemorate Amnesty International's 40th anniversary and, given its subject, would be almost comically incomplete without the sort of authoritative account of human rights abuses in the largest Communist regime in the world that Wei would have contributed. But the importance of his visit goes well beyond that. For Wei arrives in London an angry man, who will have a good deal to talk about with the Foreign Secretary.

Last week in Brussels, the EU's 15 foreign ministers approved a carefully worded declaration on China. It reflected a compromise, brokered by Cook in the chair, between those countries like France, and less publicly Germany, that oppose, for more or less nakedly commercial reasons a hard line against China on human rights, and those such as Denmark and Holland which have been historically outspoken about the manifold abuses perpetrated by the Peking regime. The outcome was a testament to Cook's skill as a chairman, for which he is steadily building a reputation during the British EU presidency. It goes further than the doves like France would have liked but a good deal less far than Denmark would have preferred. But it also reflected a shift from the British government's position before the election. For several years now Britain has joined the US in submitting a strongly critical resolution on human rights in China to the annual UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. This year it will not be doing so. Indeed the EU communique says explicitly that neither the British presidency nor any other member state will submit any such resolution.

The arguments against submitting such a resolution have annually been pressed with great force in Whitehall, but were in the end always overruled by, successively, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind, with the strongest backing from Patten during his governorship. This year, however, their case found more of an echo; Cook had spoken after the election of Britain's building a new relationship with China and submission of yet another probably doomed human rights resolution would not exactly help her to do so. The principal argument from corporatists and China hands among ministers and officials was that - thanks to diplomatic and commercial pressure from China - the resolution was invariably voted down, so pressing it threatened the trading interests of countries pressing it without any gain.

But Wei doesn't see it that way. In Le Monde on Wednesday he expressed his "deep indignation" at the "quite stupefying" EU foreign ministers' decision and was withering about the idea that his own release last year indicated that human rights were improving in the largest, and one of the most repressive states in the world. As well he might have been given that the EU decision came at the same time as fresh exposure of the gruesome sale of human organs by Chinese agencies and the arrest of further dissidents in the run-up to the People's National Congress this week. Wei pointed out that those who have agitated for democracy since the Tiananmen Square massacre are watched and persecuted on a daily basis by the secret police. And he declared that the "values of Western politicians are in retreat so that they can adapt themselves to Chinese criteria". Which was not surprising since in a long conversation in London with Patten in January Wei had dwelt on the huge importance attached by Peking to Western attitudes to a UN resolution. He said that he had noticed how his own prison conditions had improved whenever leading Western, including EU countries, were publicly attacking China over its abysmal human rights record. All the signs, in other words, are that China reacts to pressure better than to the increased "dialogue" the EU is now proposing. All this Patten privately passed on to the Foreign Office shortly afterwards.

The supposed threat to trade with China from a robust attitude to human rights is anyway extremely doubtful. Between 1992 and 1997 when Patten was incurring the wrath of China hands such as Sir Percy Cradock and others by pressing for democracy in Hong Kong trade with China doubled. The drive to realise China's potential as a market probably isn't much affected one way or the other by a tough line on human rights.

The shift of policy towards China certainly wasn't Cook's alone and no doubt reflects the business orientation of New Labour. Cook's sincerity on human rights is real. He explained in Brussels that Peking had now said it would allow a visit by Mary Robinson, the UN High commissioner on Human Rights; and that whether the EU would press a UN resolution next year would depend on progress - including the release of political prisoners. But the necessary coalition may be even more difficult to assemble next year than last. A much better time to harden the line is at the Cardiff summit in June. Wei is likely to tell Cook on Wednesday that they are now crowing in Peking. Labour was always forthright on the need for South African sanctions. It rightly urged the Thatcher government to listen to Nelson Mandela whatever the alleged economic costs. If ethical foreign policy is to be more than a soundbite Cook needs to listen very hard to Wei on Wednesday.