04/07/2006, 00.00
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China and New Zealand to remove trade tariffs and barriers

First free trade agreement between China and a Western country is to be negotiated over the next two years. Chinese Premier Wen is taken to task over human rights and freedom in his country.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – China and New Zealand are set to sign trade and cooperation agreements that would eliminate trade tariffs and barriers. However, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who is on a state visit to the South Pacific nation, is taken to task by local media over his country's failure to respect human rights and protect freedom.

Wen Jiabao and his New Zealand counterpart, Prime Minister Helen Clark, agreed yesterday to conclude negotiations on removing tariffs and trade barriers within two years. Each sector will be examined by their respective delegations who will eventually draft a final free trade agreement.

Beijing is particularly keen on agricultural imports but is concerned by New Zealand competition, especially in the dairy sector; for its part, Wellington is afraid that Chinese manufactured goods might swamp its domestic market and is calling for gradual tariff reductions to allay local fears.

"When this is completed, it will be the very first bilateral FTA agreement between China and a developed Western country," Mr Wen said.

The two countries also signed other agreements on mutual legal assistance, cultural exchanges, education and training.

Questions asked at the press conference also touched on human rights and freedom in China.

With a population of 1.3 billion people, the Premier said Beijing had succeeded in feeding the whole population and successfully lifted more than 200 million people out of poverty, he said.

"As the saying goes, 'A person living in poverty has no freedom to speak of'," Mr Wen said. Now "[p]eople have experienced greater freedoms in choosing their jobs, moving their homes, travelling to other countries as tourists and choosing information".

The Premier acknowledged that this "does not mean that we believe we have been perfect in our human rights record. We have our shortcomings," adding that his country was still in the process of advancing its economic structure and reforming its political and pension systems.

"I believe in the days to come we will be able to protect more and more fundamental rights of the Chinese people," he said, but did not elaborate as to what those rights might be and how they might be better protected.

About 50 Falun Gong practitioners demonstrated outside New Zealand's Parliament where the press conference was held.

Liu Li, a practitioner who left the mainland in 2002 bound for New Zealand and greater freedom said he disagreed with Mr Wen that the Chinese people were enjoying more freedoms.

"In the past people did not travel outside the country because they did not have the economic means to dos so," he said. He also noted that many farmers who left rural areas had difficulty obtaining papers to live in cities. (PB)

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