In China, Cameron admits 'concerns' over human rights

The British prime minister, David Cameron, yesterday set out the benefits of political reform in a speech to university students on the final day of his visit to China.

BEIJING // The British prime minister, David Cameron, yesterday set out the benefits of political reform in a speech to university students on the final day of his visit to China.

While he did not publicly cite the case of the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr Cameron said he had "deeply held concerns" over Beijing's human-rights record.

Mr Cameron promised not to "lecture or hector" the world's most populous nation, but in his speech at Peking University he flagged the importance of a multi-party political system, an independent judiciary and a free media.

"All the time the [UK] government is subject to the rule of law. These are constraints on the government and at times they can be frustrating," he said.

"But ultimately we believe they make our government better and our country stronger."

Allowing people of differing persuasions to express views publicly resulted in a better-informed public, Mr Cameron said, which made it easier for the "government to come to sensible decisions".

He also said there was "no secret" Britain and China disagreed on issues such as human rights.

"We don't raise these issues to make us look good, or to flaunt publicly that we've done so. We raise them because the British people expect us to - and because we have sincere and deeply held concerns," he said.

Although he lauded the increased economic liberalisation in China as being "hugely beneficial" to China and the world, Mr Cameron suggested economic reforms alone were not enough.

"I hope, in time, this will lead to a greater political opening, because I'm convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together," he said.

In an apparent attempt to lessen the potential for offence, Mr Cameron earlier acknowledged that the variety of opinion on these issues stemmed "partly because of our different history and culture".

Mr Cameron's comments come just weeks after a group of Chinese communist party elders called for greater freedom of speech in the country.

They cited "invisible black hands" in the state media machine that censored comments such as those recently made by the premier, Wen Jiabao, calling for political reform.

Mr Wen was looking to encourage the Communist party to embrace intra-party democracy, rather than the multi-party democracy Mr Cameron praised yesterday.

Although Mr Cameron did not mention Mr Liu's case publicly, he is believed to have brought up the issue privately with Mr Wen on Tuesday.

In late 2009, Mr Liu was given an 11-year jail term for publishing a manifesto calling for democracy. Last month he was selected as this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, much to the anger of Beijing, which dismissed him as a criminal.

The influence Mr Cameron's comments have domestically were limited by the fact they would not be broadcast widely in China, said Ding Xueliang, a professor of social science and political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

However, he said if more heads of state raised issues "in a sincere, reflective manner" while visiting China, as he said Mr Cameron had done, "over time" the message would be pressed home.

While he said other western leaders had made similar comments in the past, Mr Ding said it was unusual to hear them when a country was also trying to deepen business links, as Mr Cameron has been doing by bringing more than 40 captains of British industry with him.

"If [political reform] is mentioned a lot by different western democracies, that would certainly create a kind of pressure," agreed Chan Chepo, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Anu Kultalahti, of the East Asia division of the human-rights organisation Amnesty International, said the organisation "welcomes David Cameron's statements regarding the importance of political reform and human rights for China".

However, she said, the British public would expect Mr Cameron to speak "more directly and publicly" regarding issues of concern.