Beijing has furiously denounced the award of a major European Union human rights prize to a "criminal" Chinese dissident as a major Europe-Asia summit on the financial crisis begins in China.
By Bruno Waterfield in Brussels
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has denounced the European Parliament for giving the prestigious Sakharov Prize to Hu Jia, an imprisoned human rights activist.
"We express strong dissatisfaction at the decision to issue such an award to a jailed criminal in China, in disregard of our repeated representations," said a foreign ministry spokesman.
"This is gross interference in China's domestic affairs."
The row has blown up as Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President and current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, joins José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, in Beijing for a critical two-day Asia-Europe summit.
Mr Sarkozy and Mr Barroso are using the Beijing meeting, between the EU and 16 Asian countries including China and India, to ask for Asia's help in tackling the current global economic crisis ahead of the global summit in the US in November.
"I very much hope that China gives an important contribution to the solution of this financial crisis," said Mr Barroso yesterday.
"I think it's a great opportunity for China to show a sense of responsibility."
Mr Barroso promised that human rights would be raised at the talks, a pledge that, coming after the human rights award to Mr Hu, risks straining EU-China negotiations.
Mr Hu received a three and half year jail sentence last April for "subversion", becoming China's best-known human rights campaigner for his work highlighting government abuses, environmental degradation and the plight of China's HIV-Aids sufferers.
Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Parliament, made it clear on Thursday that the prize sent out "a signal of clear support to all those who defend human rights in China".
"Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights," he said.
Named for a Soviet dissident, the Sakharov Prize, is considered the EU's top human rights award and comes with a £40,000 purse.
Previous winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela, East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao and Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.
Charles Tannock, a Conservative Euro-MP, said that China's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhu, had "lobbied heavily" to stop the award going to Mr Hu.
"The people of China, who yearn for the same freedoms and values that are sacrosanct to us in the West, should know that the European Parliament will not hesitate to highlight the authoritarian and repressive nature of the communist government," he said.