Euro-trade warning to China

CHINESE trade discrimination against Britain over the Hong Kong democracy proposals would be ''utterly objectionable'' and would be met by reprisals from the European Union (EU), Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan has warned.

While not detailing what action the EU might take against China, Sir Leon made clear he would raise the issue in talks with Chinese ministers in Beijing next week.

''I think it is absolutely unacceptable for there to be discrimination against one European Union country on these grounds,'' he said.

He warned: ''The EU will show solidarity with Britain if there is a sign of discrimination on these grounds because it can't be justified. One of the purposes of the EU is to show collective strength which individual members on their own don't have.'' Sir Leon, the EU's External Economic Affairs Commissioner, said he intended to raise the issue of human rights in China at every meeting. But he stressed the difference between the EU's view on the issue - he saw little benefit for human rights in cutting trade links - and that of the United States where much congressional and Government thinking on Most Favoured Nation status sees a link to the human rights question.

He said he regarded the threats to discriminate against Britain because of the Hong Kong democracy plans as ''incipiently embryonic rather than full fledged''.

Sir Leon would not be drawn on his own views on Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten's democracy plan, saying it would not be appropriate for him as a commissioner to comment.

But he added: ''Even if one side is unhappy with the other it isn't a justification for trade discrimination.'' He warned that China was travelling ''a dangerous road'' if it began discrimination.

Sir Leon told the South China Morning Post he would not go armed with a list of political prisoners the EU wanted freed and he would not be specific on which aspects of human rights he wanted to see action.

Last week the European Parliament laid down a number of specific points on which it wanted to see improvements including everything from political prisoners to the sale of goods produced in labour camps.

''It will vary according to the nature of the meeting as to how general or how specific I am,'' added Sir Leon.

Sir Leon had earlier set out a fast timetable for Chinese accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, making clear that the EU wanted to see it join within a year.

He commented: ''I am not saying that everything has to be agreed totally before membership is possible but I think that the broad lines of an agreement and in some cases some considerable detail does have to be negotiated.'' It will be Sir Leon's first visit to China as an EU commissioner. He said he would know how prepared China was after his visit.

''You know the positions on pieces of paper and they say they are very interested and that they want to do what is necessary but whether psychologically they are attuned to doing it I will feel better able to judge when I come back.''