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China defends human rights record

Keystone

The Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, has defended his country's human rights record during an official visit to Switzerland.

This content was published on February 2, 2006 - 14:52

Li was speaking after talks with Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey on Thursday when they also discussed economic ties.

The Chinese foreign minister told a news conference in Bern that the issue of human rights was being addressed, but he admitted there was still much to do.

Non-governmental organisations say China continues to violate human rights on a massive scale.

He reminded the audience that when he first visited Switzerland in 1965 women did not have the right to vote. "We congratulate Switzerland on its progress," he said, adding that he was pleased to have a female counterpart.

For her part, Calmy-Rey said relations between the two countries were excellent and she congratulated Li on the progress made on human rights. She said she was ready to intensify dialogue in the future.

Calmy-Rey said she also discussed closer economic ties with China, which is Switzerland's biggest trading partner in Asia.

One possibility raised was a free-trade agreement between China and the European Free Trade Association (Efta), whose members are Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein.

She said Li agreed that relations between Bern and Beijing could be strengthened and better structured.

Swiss State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Michael Ambühl plans to visit China within the next few months.

Long-standing relations

Switzerland was one of the first western European countries to establish official relations with modern China, recognising the People's Republic in 1950.

However, the relationship has experienced some ups and downs. Most recently, Beijing expressed its displeasure when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, visited Switzerland last August. China does not recognise Tibet's claims for independence.

It was not the first time Switzerland had clashed with Beijing over Tibet. Chinese President Jiang Zemin on a state visit in 1999 gave former cabinet minister Ruth Dreifuss a dressing down following a pro-Tibetan rally outside parliament.

Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin became the first Swiss minister to visit Tibet in October last year.

Booming business

On the business side, Swiss exports to China – one of the world's fastest growing economies – have increased annually by 20 per cent and have more than doubled since 2002.

China's exports to Switzerland rose to around SFr3 billion ($2.3 billion) in 2004, up from SFr418 million in 1990.

The Swiss tourism sector is also undergoing a boom in Chinese visitors, after Beijing approved Switzerland as a holiday destination.

Li started his visit by meeting Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger. He is due to end the day with a trip to the Swiss Alps.

The last time the foreign ministers of both countries met in Switzerland was in 1997.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

China is the fifth-largest market for Swiss exports.
Swiss exports towards China totalled SFr3 billion in 2004.
Imports from China rose to SFr2.8 billion in 2004.
Switzerland invested SFr5 billion in China last year, putting it among the top 15 investors in the country.

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In brief

1950: Switzerland establishes diplomatic ties with China.

1974: First trade agreement between the two countries.

1980: Swiss lift maker Schindler becomes first foreign company to undertake a joint venture with a Chinese company.

1996: First visit by a Swiss president to China.

1999: Diplomatic incident during visit of Chinese president to Bern.

2003: Swiss President Pascal Couchepin visits Beijing.

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