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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK

Business: The Economy

Eastern promise comes West

Beijing has been working hard on economic reform

Not since giant pandas Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia arrived at London Zoo in 1974 has the UK given such a warm welcome to such an important Chinese visitor.

Much like the reception given to the furry star guests 25 years ago, President Jiang Zemin's stay will be carefully organised and much-photographed.

This visit, just like the earlier one, symbolises a thaw in relations between the two countries.

But, unlike the pandas, President Zemin will have more on his mind than his comfort.

[ image: China celebrated its 50th anniversary this year]
China celebrated its 50th anniversary this year
China, the world's tenth-largest trading nation, has been campaigning for 13 years to be admitted to the World Trade Organisation, the body which sets the rules on international trade.

So the president has every reason to make a favourable impression. The country's leaders have been making strenuous efforts to bring about economic reforms - and show them off in an effort to win a seat at the WTO.

But organisation members have insisted the country open up its markets to international competition first.

America, rather than Britain, has been dragging its feet over allowing China entry. Prime Minister Tony Blair received the red carpet treatment on a visit there last year, and Chinese leaders hope he can persuade President Clinton to relent.

World competition for the country's exports is high so there are incentives on both sides to allow China in.

[ image: China's rural poor could benefit from trade agreements]
China's rural poor could benefit from trade agreements
From the UK's point of view, entry would be highly lucrative.

China - which has the largest population of any country in the world - is considered a massive market for exporting goods.

There is a huge exports imbalance: only 1.8% of American exports (about $14.3bn) and 0.5% of UK exports go to China.

But the US imports about five times as much from that country a year.

Trade with China dropped off sharply after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 but has built up again.

Relations were also boosted by the UK's handing over Hong Kong to China in 1997.

But they were dealt a blow by the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia in May and the on-off talks over China's membership were suspended.

[ image: The West wants China to open up to more competition]
The West wants China to open up to more competition
Negotiations have resumed again but concerns over human rights issues remain, particularly among international campaigners. They would not want to see China offered any favours without making progress, especially on the occupation of Tibet.

China has ostensibly made progress in welcoming foreign investment; in reality it has done itself few favours.

Last year, foreign investments in mobile phones were banned and industries such as iron, steel, coal and building materials faced a fresh clampdown.

More recently, Beijing has banned foreign investment in the Internet.

But Western and Chinese trade relations are by no means dead.

Last year, there were more than 2,000 joint ventures between firms in the two ideologically-opposed countries.

And each time a new deal is signed, ministers hail the increasing co-operation.

[ image: In an age of rapidly-expanding technology, China still has some old-fashioned habits]
In an age of rapidly-expanding technology, China still has some old-fashioned habits
Trade Minister Richard Caborn said last month during a trip to the city of Xiamen: "My visit has demonstrated that opportunities, and a large number, exist. Indeed, through meetings with my Chinese opposite numbers, it is quite clear that China wants foreign investment."

UK businesses, such as BT, believe membership would open up vast opportunities.

And earlier this year Manchester United began selling merchandise there.

For millions of ordinary people, events such as this and the arrival of giant pandas may be more exciting than endless rounds of trade organisation negotiations.

But if an agreement is pulled off, it could be worth millions - or even billions - of pounds' worth of trade for the West, supporting jobs and industry - and give China the satisfaction of winning a long, lonely campaign.

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