ALEX Salmond and more than 30 companies arrive in China on a charm offensive today, despite criticism that the First Minister is “kowtowing” to the communist regime.
In a major effort to ensure exports and trade with the global giant can boost Scotland’s stuttering recovery from recession, Salmond will arrive in Beijing at the helm of a delegation of oil, gas, construction and food and drink firms.
Government officials hope the trip will further boost exports and trade between the nations, amid warnings that Scotland and the UK cannot sustain a recovery without foreign sales.
But Salmond was facing continued criticism last night over his engagement with the superpower, given its human rights record.
Last week, he refused again to say whether or not he would meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as both Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg have done.
Questions over China’s approach to the Tibet region have re-emerged amid fresh reports that the Communist party’s top-ranking official in the Tibet region, Chen Quanguo, has vowed to tighten controls on media and the internet there to “ensure that the voices of hostile forces and the Dalai group are not seen or heard”.
China’s foreign ministry also continued a feud with Norway last week, three years after the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize was given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, saying that Norway needed to provide “concrete action” to boost relations.
By contrast, Salmond has been granted talks in Beijing tomorrow with state councillor Yang Jie Chi, the Chinese government’s principal foreign minister.
Scottish Development International has also brought together a 30-company delegation with the aim of further increasing Scottish exports to China, which have risen from £265 million to £498m between 2007 and 2012.
Salmond said last week he had spoken to human rights groups about his visit and had their support for his own diplomatic stance on the issue. He said he would also raise the question of human rights when he meets Chinese officials.
Speaking ahead of the visit, the First Minister said Scotland could not afford to ignore the economic potential of engagement with China
He said: “It is hugely important that, in an increasingly global economy, Scotland is able to engage with international economic giants such as China, identifying further opportunities for our innovative companies to export their expertise and high-quality products and drive sustainable economic growth at home.
“The trade mission I will convene in China this weekend will focus on two crucial industry sectors, with high-level government, education and trade talks examining opportunities for Scotland in the oil and gas and constructions sectors, as well as wider opportunities around strengthening education links that are already bringing great benefits to both countries.”
The trip is Salmond’s fourth visit to China since becoming First Minister in 2007. The relationship was then most visibly cemented after the arrival of two pandas at Edinburgh Zoo.
However, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie criticised Salmond’s refusal to agree to meet the Dalai Lama at the next possible opportunity.
He also said that the First Minister’s claim that he had raised the subject of human rights was an exaggeration.
He said: “Supporters of human rights will be disappointed in the First Minister’s refusal to agree to meet the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government will be happy that Alex Salmond has yet again kowtowed to their demands.
“His claims that he has raised human rights don’t stand scrutiny. The speech he refers to was entitled ‘Adam Smith and Climate Justice’ and only mentioned human rights once.”
During the visit, six Scottish firms will also aim to boost sales of Scottish salmon to China at a Seafood Expo in the city of Dalian.
It comes with sales of Scottish salmon to China having rocketed in the wake of a slump in sales of Norwegian salmon, caused by the Chinese boycott.
Salmond’s visit comes a week after five people were killed when a jeep ploughed through a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Chinese state media has blamed Uighur Islamists for the attack.