Already pricked by attacks during a landmark summit with leaders from 48 African countries, Beijing’s sensitivity to its human rights record came to the fore during November’s APEC summit in Hanoi.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu had to diffuse a potential diplomatic row after word spread that Chinese President Hu Jintao would snub his Canadian counterpart over inflammatory remarks. While not referring specifically to China, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on his flight to Hanoi that values were not for sale. "I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values – our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights," he said.
Jiang told reporters the leaders would meet, but added that the Canadian should not be commenting on China’s human rights situation. "China strongly opposes interference in the internal affairs of other countries," she said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao used a similar argument to rebuke criticism over its ties with African states accused of human rights abuses ahead of the two-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was attended by heads of state from 35 of the 53 African nations, and top officials from 13 others.
"Our principle when handling our relations with other countries is to never try to impose our social system, development model, values or ideology upon other countries," Liu responded.
China has been the focus of criticism from many quarters. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has accused China’s banks of ignoring the "Equator Principles" when lending to developing countries in Africa. The voluntary code of conduct, launched in 2003 and adopted by 80% of commercial banks worldwide, pledges that financed projects meet certain social and environmental standards.
The dispute in Hanoi showed the barrage of criticism is having an effect. But with 14 trade deals worth US$1.9 billion signed at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and a pledge made to strengthen ties between the two sides, the supersensitive superpower is more likely to develop a thicker skin than change its criteria for foreign deals.