In China, Britain's Cameron Aims to Boost Trade Ties but Can't Escape Human Rights Issue

Article excerpt

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was recently placed under house arrest, called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to raise the issue of human rights during his trip this week to Beijing.

On the heels of French and Portuguese delegations last week, the largest ever British mission to Beijing set to work Tuesday, hoping to ease its deep domestic woes with better trade relations with China.

Following the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, Britain's historical tensions with China have eased in recent years. What's more, Beijing is eager to to boost bilateral links against the backdrop of relative friction with the US.

David Cameron had barely touched down in the Chinese capital, however, when a persistent fault line in China's engagement with the west emerged - its human rights record. Mr. Cameron is coming under mounting pressure to speak out on the issue.

"You owe Chinese people, the people who sacrifice their rights," said one of China's best known artists, Ai Weiwei, who used a BBC interview Tuesday to make a direct plea to the British premier.

Mr. Ai, who says he was recently put under house arrest by the Chinese authorities after thousands of people accepted his invitation to a party at his condemned studio in Shanghai, currently enjoys a high profile in the UK as the creator of an art installation in London's prestigious Tate Modern art gallery.

China's human rights record

The artist had also used an article Monday in Britain's Guardian newspaper to bemoan the growing reluctance of foreign leaders to raise sensitive topics during meetings with Chinese counterparts for fear of losing business.

"Since the global economic crisis began, the change in global attitudes is clear to see and I think it is pitiful," he wrote.

In public at least, there was little evidence Tuesday that Cameron was going to risk upsetting China. Instead, he said that he wanted to double bilateral trade with China to more than $100 billion a year by 2015.

Even so, commentators like Kerry Brown, a China expert at the London-based Chatham House foreign policy think-tank, said that Cameron was known to have strong views on the case of China's jailed Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo and would surely raise the issue. …