DAVID Cameron will lead Britain’s largest government delegation to China today, gambling that a promise to confront his hosts over human rights does not jeopardise the billions of dollars of trade he hopes to secure.
Dozens of business leaders will accompany the Prime Minister as he seeks to give UK engineers, manufacturers, retailers and financial services a toe-hold in China’s vast markets. Four Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, are already in Beijing to prepare for mini-summits designed to deepen financial links and cultural understanding.
Mr Cameron set the bar high for “a vitally important trade mission”. He said: “Our message is simple: Britain is now open for business, has a very business-friendly Government and wants to have a much, much stronger relationship with China.”
The first test will come tomorrow when he sits down with Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, in the Great Hall.
Mr Cameron will approach the issue of human rights in a “sensible and measured way”, according to officials.
He is expected to urge Mr Wen to use China’s influence to help to free Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician under house arrest. He will also raise the incarceration of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel peace laureate serving an 11-year jail term for subversion.
A leading Chinese environmental activist and dissident author, Dai Qing, said yesterday that she was willing to attend the awards ceremony in Oslo. “I shall tell the world that it is not true that no Chinese citizen who fights against authoritarianism will be able to attend,” she wrote.
Mr Cameron is likely to confine his concerns, though, to his meeting with Mr Wen tomorrow, allowing him to accentuate the positive when he meets President Hu Jintao, China’s head of state, on Wednesday. British officials would not discuss the language that Mr Cameron proposed to use.
Three of the guests on Mr Cameron’s chartered plane are Vernon Ellis, chairman of the British Council, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum and Sir Mark Jones, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum who are trying to win easier access to China for British exhibitions and cultural tours.
One case Mr Cameron will have to decide whether to raise is that of Ai Weiwei, the artist who recently filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds, and who was placed under house arrest last week to prevent him holding a party to mark the forced demolition of his Shanghai studio.
Officials said that there was a balance to be struck between seeking trade deals and speaking up for human rights. “Promoting trade and advancing the trade agenda does not mean only doing that, and there’s still scope for dealing with other important issues,” one said.
“Having trade as the focus of your foreign policy does not mean it being the exclusive focus. Human rights is part of the dialogue we have. These issues will be discussed.”
President Hu returned from a summit with President Sarkozy last week having overseen $US20 billion worth of aviation and energy contracts between France and China.
Britain’s mission began modestly yesterday with an agreement that will allow the export of British breeding pigs to China.
An adult boar, with the help of artificial insemination techniques, can sire 6,000 piglets a year.
China has half the world’s pig population. The deal, signed by Vince Cable, the business secretary, could be worth $73million to the British pig industry over the next five years.
Today Dr Cable will sign an agreement under which the Chinese recognise Scotch whisky to refer only to whisky produced in Scotland.
The Scotch Whisky Association estimates the deal will double its $US130 million trade with China in five years.
The visit is based around five mini-summits, including Mr Cameron’s meeting with Mr Wen.
Mr Gove, accompanied by a group of teachers and university vicechancellors, will seek to improve links between British schools and universities and their Chinese counterparts. Five hundred British schools now teach mandarin and 85,000 Chinese students visit the UK every year. A similar proportion of British students – 3,000 – go to China.
Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, will take part in the first ministerial-level summit on energy security and low-carbon technologies that has taken place alongside a leader’s meeting. China’s three biggest power companies produce more greenhouse gases annually than the UK.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, will put Britain’s financial services sector at the heart of his talks when he arrives in Beijing today. Treasury sources said he wants to unlock trading and business opportunities for UK players, which already account for a quarter of the foreign-owned financial companies in China.
The UK will also seek greater access for companies facing barriers in their attempts to gain a foothold there, and for more protection for foreign intellectual property rights.
Travelling with Mr Osborne are Standard Chartered’s chief executive, Peter Sands, the Royal Bank of Scotland chairman Sir Philip Hampton, Tim Breedon, chief executive of Legal and General and David Nish, chief executive of Standard Life.
The reputation of the City was badly battered in the credit crunch, but the Chancellor will argue that the sector helps to make the British and Chinese economies “complementary”. China is the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods, while the UK is the second-biggest exporter of services.
Those accompanying Mr Cameron include the heads of Shell, Rolls-Royce Marine, Barclays, Alliance Boots, Diageo, Mothercare and Tesco.
Mr Cameron, who is hoping to fit in a visit to the Great Wall, leaves China on Wednesday for a G20 summit in South Korea.
There he will press for action on the Doha round of trade talks. Officials believe that there is a 12-month opportunity for action before campaigning for the US presidential election makes progress impossible.