China is guilty of “large scale and systematic” human rights abuses, Nick Clegg has said on the first morning of a three-day visit to London by Premier Li Keqiang.
The Chinese people are “shackled” to a one-party communist regime that is the “antithesis” of an open democratic society, Mr Clegg said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is visiting London
In comments which will raise eyebrows among the Chinese delegation, Mr Clegg said China’s extraordinary growth will put pressure on the regime to grant people “political emancipation”.
Relations with China deteriorated after David Cameron and Nick Clegg met the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader. But Mr Clegg said he had no regrets about the meeting and he hopes to meet him again.
Premier Li is on a visit to London that Downing Street hopes will generate billions of pounds in trade ties and investment in infrastructure. He will meet George Osborne, William Hague, Justine Greening, the Development Secretary, and Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, on Tuesday ahead of a lunch with British business leaders.
The comments risk embarrassing David Cameron. China is highly sensitive about being “lectured” on human rights.
A rift over Britain’s stance towards Tibet and the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, prompted London to cancel a planned trip by Cameron in 2012 after Beijing said its leaders would not be free to meet him.
Mr Cameron made a major trip to China the following year. But the row flared again this year in April when China was angered by a Foreign Office document criticising China’s human rights record.
In response, Beijing called off a meeting to discuss human rights in London at short notice.
Speaking at his monthly press conference on Monday morning, Mr Clegg said: “Of course we can’t agree on large scale and systematic human rights abuses which still continue in China to this day.
“The many journalists who are persecuted. The very widespread use of the death penalty.
“This is a country which is going on an extraordinary journey. We’ve seen economic transformation on a scale possibly unheard of in the modern world, with millions of people have become economically emancipated, although they are still politically shackled to a doctrine which is a one party state, a communist state, which is the antithesis of the kind of open, democratic society I believe in.
Mr Clegg said despite the Chinese human rights record, he hoped to have “very productive discussions” with Mr Li.
He said Britain should continue its trade ties with China as economic growth would force political change.
“In the long run, commercial prosperity in China, economic transformation in China will lead to increasing pressure for social and political emancipation as well.”
He added he and Mr Cameron would in a “respectful but firm way” continue to “point out that we remain deeply, deeply concerned about the very large scale abuses of human rights that still occur.”
Mr Clegg said he would be “more than happy” to meet the Dalai Lama again, but added he has no plans to do so at the moment. He added: “In fact I would hope that I can meet someone of his distinction sometime in the future but as I say there are no Government plans to do so right now.”
Ahead of this week’s visit, the Chinese ambassador warned Britain not to “point the finger” on human rights, saying the Foreign Office report was “biased”.
“We also have some concerns about human rights here (in Britain). I don’t think pointing the finger is the way. Many opportunities were missed in the last year and we all know the reasons behind it,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, said.
Downing Street were far more circumspect. A spokesman said all issues are “on the table” at the talks, adding: “There are no exceptions.”