The European Union president called Tuesday for a level playing field in commerce between China and Europe, warning the European public could turn to protectionism if they felt China wasn't playing fair.
Herman Van Rompuy also said China's global reputation could be harmed by its negative record on human rights, although he made no direct mention of recent cases of repression, including the detention of famed artist and government critic Ai Weiwei.
"A level playing field for trade and investment is key," Van Rompuy said in a speech to communist officials at the party's national training center in Beijing.
A nation's people must feel they have a fair chance of winning business abroad to offset that lost through international competition, or else "populism and protectionism loom," he said.
The 27-nation EU is China's largest export market, but European firms have been battered by low-cost Chinese textiles, leatherwear and other goods. Meanwhile, European companies, along with other foreign firms, have complained of regulatory barriers hindering their ability to compete freely in China. Beijing's currency controls, which help boost Chinese exports, are also an irritant in relations with other countries.
Later Tuesday, Van Rompuy held discussions with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on topics ranging from trade to human rights and copyright protection. They also reviewed preparations for a 14th EU-China summit scheduled for the second half of the year. Van Rompuy met with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday.
During a question and answer session following his speech, Van Rompuy said the sides had a healthy dialogue on reducing impediments and said he expected further progress to result from discussions at the upcoming summit.
"The most important thing is that we go forward that we make progress that me make rules and implement them not only at the central level but also at the local level," he said. "And I'm quite sure that ... we will discuss it in an open way and that we will take sufficient initiatives to achieve that level playing field."
Van Rompuy said he was heartened by China's latest five-year plan for development that envisions shifting the economy away from exports and investment and toward increased reliance on domestic demand, eventually reducing and possibly eliminating its trade surplus and other imbalances.
Van Rompuy stressed the central importance of human rights in the EU's foreign policy and called on China to honor international rights covenants it has signed.
"This work is among the core values the European Union is build on. It is of deep concern for European citizens and it is reflected in our diplomacy across the world," he said.
The EU was among foreign governments and rights groups that expressed concern for Ai's detention that began April 3 when he was stopped at a Beijing airport while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. That made the avant-garde artist the highest profile figure so far to be swept up in the recent crackdown on dissent, one of the biggest in years, that has seen hundreds of bloggers, academics, lawyers and activists questioned, detained, arrested or simply disappeared.
Van Rompuy did not mention the crackdown directly, but indicated China's global image could suffer from its actions.
"China's contribution to implementing the universal principles of human rights and rule of law will be important elements in shaping its global public reputation," he said.