Campaigners have called on David Cameron to challenge Chinese premier Li Keqiang over the country’s human rights record when the pair meet today for talks aimed at boosting trade between the two nations.
The Prime Minister hopes to build on the business links forged during his visit to China in December last year, but Nick Clegg said the Government would not shy away from raising the Beijing administration’s “large-scale and systematic” human rights abuse.
A coalition of human rights organisations urged Mr Cameron to discuss the situation in Tibet and make a public statement calling for the Chinese government to commit to reforms.
Mr Cameron’s decision to meet exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama during a visit to London two years ago infuriated Beijing, plunging Sino-British relations into deep freeze at a time when the Government had been trying to open up trade opportunities with the rapidly growing Chinese economy.
The visit by Mr Li, which will also include a meeting with the Queen, marks the latest stage in a painstaking diplomatic rehabilitation effort and could lead to business deals worth £18 billion.
Trade talks will include discussions about lifting a ban on exports of British beef and lamb to China, which could provide a £120 million boost to the UK economy.
Other deals due to be announced to coincide with the premier’s visit include Chinese financial services group Nord Engine making up to £150 million available to invest in UK and European small and medium enterprises.
China Minsheng Investment Corporation will open its European headquarters in London, with around 1.5 billion US dollars (£883 million) of investments in a range of sectors.
In addition to the official functions, Mr Li and his wife Cheng Hong are expected to have what Chinese officials described as “tete-a-tete interactions ” with Mr Cameron and his wife Samantha to “build up trust and consolidate close working and personal relations”.
The Chinese premier is also due to meet Labour leader Ed Miliband during his visit, although he is not expected to be holding any talks with Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg.
At a press conference yesterday Mr Clegg said he would be “more than honoured” to meet the Dalai Lama again and while he acknowledged the importance of developing commercial ties with China “t hat doesn’t mean that we cannot in a respectful but firm way … point out that we remain deeply, deeply concerned about the very large-scale abuse of human rights that still continues”.
Asked whether Mr Cameron will raise human rights issues when he talks to Mr Li in Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a regular Westminster media briefing: “All issues are on the table in these discussions and there will be no exception this time.”
The spokesman added: “In terms of discussions around human rights with the Chinese authorities, we had the latest round of the UK-China dialogue on these issues in May.
“There is a process through which issues such as that are discussed.”
The spokesman said that Mr Cameron had not spoken with the Dalai Lama since their meeting in 2012, and said that there was no change in the UK Government’s position on Tibet, which was to “recognise the territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China”.
Cuts UK, a coalition of campaigning organisations including the Tibet Society, issued a series of demands for Mr Cameron.
Tibet Society chief executive Philippa Carrick said: “The visit of Premier Li to the UK is being purported to herald a new era of Chinese investment in the UK, however, it could also herald a worrying level of influence by China in the UK.
“David Cameron must be clear that universal values of human and civil rights are integral to any engagement we have with China and Britain’s relationship with China cannot be just about trade and economics.”
Shao Jiang, a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre and member of Cuts UK said: “The UK must not be bullied by China. The Chinese government seeks to deflect criticism from its human rights record by threatening withdrawal of trade.”
In an article in The Times yesterday Mr Li said he wanted the visit to help “change misperceptions and ease misgivings” about China.
He said: “The United Kingdom is a great country and an important partner of China.
“My visit has a threefold purpose: first, to discuss ways to deepen co-operation in various fields and thus spur the growth of our respective economies; second, to present the real China so as to change misperceptions and ease misgivings; and third, to draw on British perspectives and experience.
“The United Kingdom has a strong economy, dynamic financial sector, advanced science and technologies; and it leads the world in energy conservation and environmental protection.
“China, for its part, has a huge market, large foreign exchange reserves and a competitive manufacturing sector. Drawing on our complementary strengths, there are many areas for collaboration.
“We look forward to stronger co-operation in finance, infrastructure construction, among others, and more robust exchanges in research, education, and culture. We look forward to win-win engagements.”