NICOLA Sturgeon has pledged to promote women's rights while representing Scotland in China after the country's ruling Communist Party regime was accused of "turning back the clock" on gender equality.

The First Minister is preparing to lead a Scottish Government delegation in the Far East on a trade visit later this week, with a series of business engagements in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong aimed at promoting economic links with the world's second-largest national economy.

She will also address the issue of women's rights in the heart of the Chinese Government in a key note address to 100 senior women in government, academia and business, a Government spokeswoman said.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has been accused of clamping down on women's groups and human rights in recent months. Earlier this year five activists were detained ahead of a planned march against sexual harassment before International Women's Day. They were held prisoner for more than a month, remaining under police surveillance after they were set free following an international outcry.

Police had detained the five women on the charge of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles", which carries a maximum of five years in prison each.

Meanwhile, more than 200 activists and lawyers have been detained since July 10 in what appears to be a co-ordinated move by the security services. Thirteen remain in custody, 12 of whom have no access to lawyers and at least another six have disappeared, according to Human Rights Watch. The charity fears they could be tortured.

Ms Sturgeon said: "One of the guiding principles of our engagement with China is respect for human rights and the rule of law. I also believe that economic growth and equality are two sides of the same coin. That is why I will be speaking about women’s rights and the benefits equality can bring to the economy – both here in Scotland and for China."

She added: "I will be in China to promote Scottish innovation in all forms – from our emerging technology companies to our trailblazing Scottish designers to our oil and gas expertise.

"But Scotland’s innovation isn’t just about technology, we are also promoting a very distinctive approach to creating a more competitive economy - one that is based on a fair society."

Ms Sturgeon has signalled a tougher stance with the Chinese regime than her predecessor, Alex Salmond. The former SNP leader was accused of snubbing the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, when he visited the UK for fear of offending the authoritarian Chinese government. It later emerged that Mr Salmond had personally assured China that his Government was not involved in arranging the Dalai Lama's 2012 visit.