Pressure on PM over China

TVNZ | Mar 17, 2008

Pressure on PM over China

Violent protests in Tibet have come at a very awkward time for the New Zealand government with Prime Minister Helen Clark about to sign a free trade deal with China.

And a ONE News/Colmar Brunton poll has revealed that the trade deal is not very popular with the public.

In the latest poll 49% of voters say they don’t think the deal should go ahead, with 39% in favour and 12% undecided.

While other government’s around the world were quick to condemn China’s violent response to Tibetan protests, Clark was hesitant for most of Monday, saying she did not have enough information. However she has now expressed New Zealand’s "deep concern at the violence" and has urged Chinese authorities to react carefully and proportionately.

And she is defending the time her government took to respond, saying she doesn’t spend every weekend glued to her television and it would be silly to rush in and condemn when she does not have the full picture.

"What we don’t know is how these protests started out. Were they peaceful, were they violent?," Clark said on Monday morning’s Breakfast show.

"If there’s looting, arson and rioting that will get a response anywhere in the world, but if there is a response to be had it should be a proportionate one.

"If facts were established that made it clear that bullets had been fired on peaceful crowds, of course we’d say something. But I don’t have that information," added Clark.

Free trade deal close

The violence has come just as New Zealand is about to become the first developed country to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with the world’s largest nation and critics say the PM does not want to upset China ahead of the historic agreement with the communist state.

"We shouldn’t be signing a free trade agreement on the back of the Tibetan people and their rights to be free of Chinese domination," Green Party MP Keith Locke says.

Clark says she is under no illusions about China’s record on issues like restricting free speech.

"Of course, China is a dictatorship," she says.

But the PM says the public may not yet understand the economics of the deal.

"If there’s an impression being given in questions that somehow the free trade agreement opens New Zealand up to vastly more Chinese goods on highly favourable terms the reality is those goods can come in virtually unhindered now," she says.

The National Party agrees and thinks the trade deal could also help China improve its human rights record.

"Free tree discussions like other ties between New Zealand and China have tended to be forces for good," Foreign Affairs spokesman Murray McCully says.

The trade agreement could be worth up to $400 million but critics say the price of doing the deal is too high if it means closer economic relations with an oppressive regime.

Clark has ruled out abandoning the looming agreement because of China’s actions and claims no one is seriously considering a boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics, which some opponents around the world have been calling for.

Locke is disappointed at the government’s muted reaction and says the PM is using "weasel words" by calling for more information on the situation. Locke says the Chinese response to Tibetan protests has been brutal and New Zealand should be speaking out.

But Clark hit back, saying critics are just using this particular issue to further their opposition to the trade agreement.

"They will use whatever is in the headlines at any particular time," said the Prime Minister.

She also insisted that human rights issues were something that she had personally raised with the Chinese and would continue to do so.

source: NZTV