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Debt-Laden Europe Cautious on China Human Rights

  • Henry Ridgwell

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is wrapping up his tour of Europe after signing a raft of business deals worth several billion dollars. European states are increasingly looking to China for investment to shore up their ailing economies. But campaigners say Europe should not be so quick to do business with a country they accuse of human rights violations.

In capitals across Europe, elaborate ceremonies were laid on to welcome Wen Jiabao.

In London, the Chinese premier inspected an honor guard after being taken on a mini-tour of the country.

Next stop Berlin - where Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a dinner at a lakeside villa. The lavish European welcome was repaid at a later press conference.

"We have faith in Europe's economy and in the euro," said Wen, "and we said we are going to buy appropriate levels of debt of some European countries if needed."

Wen also signed deals worth $15 billion in Germany, including the purchase of 88 European-made Airbus planes.

China's open check-book has not been welcomed by all. 'Free Tibet' protesters shadowed Wen's tour.

More widely, human-rights organizations say the situation in China has worsened since pro-democracy protests erupted across the Arab world.

"China has actually moved back significantly. The human rights situation in China has not been this bad in a decade probably, if not more," said Sam Zafiri of Amnesty International.

An example, says Zafiri, is the detention of artist and political activist Ai Weiwei who was arrested in April, allegedly for tax evasion. Along with fellow activist Hu Jia, he was released just days before Wen Jiabao's tour of Europe.

"There are dozens of activists, lawyers, dissidents who are facing even greater restrictions on their ability to speak," Zafiri added. "So the Chinese government clearly responds to outside pressure… the myth of a China that is somehow immune because of its economic clout is just that, a myth."

Still, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a careful response when questioned on China's human rights.

"We do believe that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together," Cameron said.

The Chinese premier was more direct in his reply.

"On human rights China and the UK should respect each other," Wen said, "respect the facts, treat each other as equals, engage in cooperation rather than finger pointing, and resolve properly our differences through dialogue."

As Europe struggles with its debt crisis, analysts say leaders are reluctant to openly criticize China when there are billion-dollar business deals on the table.