Human rights concerns overshadow UK-China trade agreements

By Patrick McPartlin

David Cameron has today called on China to consider political reform to complement the country’s recent trade agreements with Britain, the most notable being the agreement between engine maker Rolls-Royce, and China Eastern Airlines, in a deal worth £750m. Following his pleas yesterday for China to improve their human rights record, Mr Cameron is said to have raised the individual case of recently jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whilst the artist Ai Weiwei, currently under house arrest by Chinese authorities, called on Mr Cameron to make a statement condemning China’s human rights record. It is unclear as to how in-depth the talks between Mr Cameron and the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao were, but human rights groups and pro-democracy campaigners are urging Mr Cameron to focus more on China’s less than exemplary human rights record, and less on trade.

China has long since attracted criticism regarding its human rights system. Organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with the U.S. State Department have all accused China of restricting civil liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of movement. Additionally, the country has courted controversy with its ‘one-child policy‘, and the ongoing use of capital punishment. However, continued pressure from the West may mean that China will have to re-examine its approach to human rights. Mr Cameron was keen to stress that despite the main focus of his whistlestop tour of China being on improving trade agreements – currently only 2% of China’s imports are British – human rights was also an issue that he would be discussing with the Chinese president Hu Jintao, and Premier Wen.

Ahead of the G20 summit in South Korea, in which China’s economic activity is due to be scrutinised, Mr Cameron said that he hoped it would be a natural progression from improved economic freedom, to greater political freedom in China, adding that he was “convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together.”

Despite Mr Cameron’s first visit to China as Prime Minister being centred on improving trade relations, the issue of Chinese human rights is one that has long since caused worldwide controversy, and will continue to do so in the future. However, the tentative steps made in encouraging China to adopt a more democratic approach could be the start of a long road to humanitarian recovery.

Raising a glass to political reform?: David Cameron and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao