Australian PM talks rights with China`s Wen

China has drawn criticism from around the world with its severe clampdown.

Updated: Apr 27, 2011, 14:46 PM IST

Beijing: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she raised a range of human rights concerns in talks on Tuesday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who denied China had taken a "backward step".

"I expressed my concerns and Australia`s concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities, about the question of religious freedom and about recent reports of human rights activists," Gillard told reporters after the talks.

"Premier Wen ... indicated that his view was that China had not taken a backward step on human rights."

The trip is Gillard`s first to China, Australia`s top trading partner, and comes as the ruling Communist Party is waging its toughest crackdown on dissent in years.

Gillard is set to meet President Hu Jintao on Wednesday at the conclusion of her week-long trip to Northeast Asia which also included visits to Japan and South Korea.

Before arriving in Beijing late Monday, she had vowed to raise Australian concerns over human rights in meetings with Chinese leaders.

China`s government has drawn criticism from around the world with its severe clampdown, launched after anonymous online appeals emerged in February calling for weekly protests to emulate those that have rocked the Arab world.

Rights groups say scores of activists and lawyers have been detained, including prominent artist Ai Weiwei, a staunch critic of the ruling Communist Party, who the government says is being investigated for "economic crimes".

China has also drawn fire for detaining scores of members of an unregistered Protestant church in Beijing, and for a security crackdown on a Tibetan monastery in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

It is likely to face further scrutiny this week when US and Chinese officials hold human rights talks in Beijing, as part of a recurring US-China dialogue on the issue.

When asked about the rights discussions between Gillard and Wen, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Tuesday China respected human rights. "China`s progress in the field of human rights is witnessed by all," he added.

Gillard said she raised the specific cases of two Australians jailed or detained in China -- Stern Hu and Matthew Ng -- but she did not elaborate on Wen`s response.

Hu was one of four Rio Tinto employees jailed last year for stealing trade secrets and taking bribes. Ng, a travel services executive, was detained late last year by police on suspicion of embezzlement.

The cases strained relations between Canberra and Beijing, and stoked fears among foreign investors about the rule of law in China.

In a speech delivered later in the day to a gathering of Chinese and Australian businesses, Gillard called for a "reliable" legal system in China.

"A clear, reliable legal and regulatory regime would be a major benefit that would provide a further boost to our economic partnership," she said.

Vice Premier Li Keqiang told the same forum he welcomed Australian infrastructure investment in central and western China and hoped Canberra would give "full consideration" to Chinese companies, including state-owned ones.

Booming trade between Australia and China was also high on the agenda of the Premiers` meeting.

Gillard said Australia`s economic ties with China were "in good shape" and trade between the two countries was growing in "leaps and bounds".

She said Wen agreed long-standing free-trade negotiations should continue "with some pace to them".

Gillard`s visit to China follows the release of a survey Monday showing 75 percent of Australians saw China`s growth as good for Australia, but 57 percent believed there was too much Chinese investment Down Under.

The poll commissioned by the Lowy Institute foreign policy think tank also showed 58 percent thought Canberra was not doing enough to pressure Beijing on human rights, though that was down from 66 percent a year earlier.

Bureau Report