For the earnest European visitors who came to Beijing last week for full and frank discussions on human rights, the Chinese staged an elaborate joke. When some of the 40-strong delegation were shown around part of the Beijing number one prison, they found the prisoners reading books in cells each with its own potted plants and a tank full of tropical fish. They found others in a concert hall playing electric guitars in a rock band and saw facilities for basketball and swimming. The place was tiled and clean rather like the entrance to a Hong Kong bank, remarked one member of the delegation. One Danish delegate was astonished at how well the prisoners spoke English. China was putting on much the same show for the same kind of people back in the 1950s. Journalists such as former Reuters correspondent David Chipp recalled going to Changchun, the model prison where such war criminals as China's last emperor Pu Yi were being re-educated, and found them playing cards and reading books too. But last week's European visitors insisted they had not felt insulted but were convinced their discussions with various Chinese academics amounted to a breakthrough. 'This would never have happened a few years ago. We are really engaging them in an important dialogue,' one Austrian delegate claimed. The visitors said they pressed the Chinese on executions, prison conditions, the fate of prominent prisoners, and reform of the judicial system. Drawing on experiences with the former Soviet Union, the Austrian felt that such small beginnings had at least opened up a way until human rights rose to the top of the agenda in relations between the two blocs. With China, however, the week looked rather different. The European Union's decision may mark the end and not the beginning of a process. The Soviet Union had signed the Helsinki accords which gave Western governments and activists a legitimate platform to investigate and criticise what the Soviets did. China has signed nothing of the kind and from now on will surely be increasingly free from any diplomatic pressure. Premier Li Peng described the European Union's decision not to support - let alone table - a resolution at the United Nation's Geneva Commission on Human Rights as a wise decision. To rub the message home, the Chinese media found no room even to mention the dialogue; instead, most newspapers have run the full text of a White Paper on Tibet which insisted that since 1949 human rights have vastly improved in Tibet. The Chinese press also reported that visiting Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews told Mr Li that the Europeans were already satisfied with the encouraging results so far from their dialogue on human rights. As most Chinese are aware, Mr Li personally authorised the declaration of martial law and deployment of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And it was this which prompted many countries to demand that China should open its prisons to outside investigation. The French government, which was the most vociferous critic of Mr Li's actions, last year took the initiative to sabotage the joint European position on Geneva. The French were only doing what Canada and Australia had done when they agreed to hold bilateral informal dialogues instead of censoring China in public. These are held in private and involve no formal commitment to reporting the results or achieving any goals. To distance his government even further from criticising China, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has even declined to meet Wei Jingsheng. Washington says it is still contemplating tabling a resolution in Geneva but it looks as if it will follow the rest after allowing itself the dignity of being the last to abandon the project. On Friday, the China Daily ran a cartoon showing United States President Bill Clinton conducting an orchestra of empty seats in front of a music stand which read China's Human Rights. Five years ago, when President Clinton was prepared to impose economic sanctions on China to force concessions, Beijing showed signs of succumbing to pressure by releasing political prisoners on parole and promising to allow prison visits by Red Cross officials. Despite Mr Clinton's subsequent about-face, Washington has tried to keep up the pressure at least on the multilateral front through the UN system. Success was nearly attained in 1995 when by only one vote, cast by Russia, China escaped outside scrutiny. Last week marked a turning point not just in terms of the human rights issue but China's diplomacy. In the early 1990s, China devoted much time to cultivating the votes of Third World countries, particularly in Africa, which could be relied upon to vote down the Geneva resolution. This was followed up by efforts to drive a wedge among European countries which finally culminated in intensive lobbying and high-level visits to the most idealistic governments - the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and even Iceland. Surprising coincidences kept happening. For instance, shortly after the Norwegian parliament did not announce Mr Wei for the Nobel Peace prize, the king arrived on a state visit to China. And Shell agreed on a major US$4 billion (HK$30.9 billion) deal in China just after the Dutch government abandoned its human rights stance. Western diplomats in Beijing say all this is merely drawing the curtain on policy that has been bankrupt for sometime. Its folly has become apparent with the Iraq crisis. The US could hardly seek China's support in the UN Security Council to send in inspectors to Iraq and then a few weeks later in Geneva try to get the UN to send human rights inspectors to China. Just as embarrassing have been the increasingly feeble attempts to dress up the Western failure. China has just hosted a trip by three US religious leaders and later this year will welcome UN Human Rights Commissioner, Ireland's Mary Robinson. But such visits will be no different from that of the European Union experts. Last year some Americans like Vice-President Al Gore tried to argue that Western pressure was bringing results, such as the supposed development of village democracy. This belief has even bewildered Premier Li. 'Westerners don't realise this has been the practice in China for years,' he said. Also touted as another sign has been China's initialling of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the likelihood that it may join a companion covenant on civil and political rights this year. However, many other signatories like North Korea have never found themselves under any real constraints as a result. If, as seems increasingly likely, China joins the World Trade Organisation in the next year or two, then the US will also be abandoning the stick of trade sanctions against China. The annual renewal of China's Most Favoured Nations Status could then no longer take place. This means a central plank of Chinese diplomacy will no longer revolve around fending off threats over its human rights record. Instead, it is now eagerly developing a new role as a real player in world affairs. So it was gratifying for China that the Europeans backed down just as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan returned from his successful mission to Baghdad. This is the first international crisis in which the Chinese media have played up China's role. Chinese Central Television sent 16 reporters to the Gulf some of whom even took part in live two-ways just like CNN during the Gulf War. 'This will make our voice heard by our people and those abroad,' the Beijing Youth Daily said. The mainland press has devoted pages of news and analysis to the events and hailed the results of Mr Annan's diplomacy as a victory for China and defeat for the US. The US failed to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, the China Youth Daily proclaimed, and argued it was the US that had become isolated in a new, multi-polar world. Other papers especially praised France for its role as well as Russia and the Wen Hui Bao declared that Russia as well had won a diplomatic victory and had stood up at this time of crisis.