Blair reaps reward of dialogue on rights

 

With the same exquisite timing that they have shown before during high-level visits, Chinese security police yesterday arrested a dissident on the second day of Mr Tony Blair's visit to China, thus ensuring that the day's news was overshadowed by the one issue China wants to play down.

Mr Xu Wenli, an outspoken advocate of democracy, was taken from his Beijing home early yesterday after giving interviews to the British media and released seven hours later.

The incident marred a visit of some historic significance. Mr Blair is the first British prime minister to visit China since the return of Hong Kong, which ended a 150-year period of "national humiliation" for Beijing, and both sides hailed the opening of a "new chapter" in their relations.

Having led the way this year in dropping the annual criticism of China at the UN Human Rights Commission, Mr Blair was "rewarded" by the Chinese government with the long-promised signing of the UN Covenant on Political and Social Rights on the eve of his visit.

This enables him along with the six other EU prime ministers making trade-related pilgrimages to China this autumn to claim that dialogue on human rights rather than confrontation is showing results.

Mr Blair had therefore adopted a softly-softly approach on human rights, saying he would only mention the issue in private with Chinese leaders. But he felt obliged to raise the arrest of Mr Xu publicly with China's ambassador to London and later, after the dissident was released, he brought it up during a meeting with President Jiang Zemin.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Tang Guoqiang, confirmed that Mr Blair had raised the case in his 80-minute talk with President Jiang. He explained that Mr Xu was summoned to the police station for a warning according to law because he was "suspected of involvement in illegal activities". Mr Xu said he was taken from his home by public security bureau officials at 9 a.m. and released at 4 p.m. "For the police to question me at this time was not too smart, not too appropriate," he commented.

Mr Blair later told British businessmen: "There is no disguising that we continue to have serious concerns and differences about human rights, about political and religious freedoms and about the situation in Tibet, which I discussed at length with President Jiang Zemin today."

Britain is already the largest EU investor in China, and a large British trade delegation hopes to conclude some important deals this week. The visit is being marked by British theatrical and artistic displays, to project a "cool Britannia" image, and a mock British trial was staged in Beijing yesterday to promote legal reform.

Mrs Cherie Blair gave the Chinese audience of lawyers and police officials an explanation of proceedings in The Queen v John Hotfoot, in which a man was accused of driving a robbery getaway car.

A British judge, Lord Justice Otten, presided and prosecution and defence counsels were played by two Queen's Counsels, Mr Philip Havers and Mr Robert Seabrook.

The Chinese observers, many in uniform, watched bemused as the British jurists in wigs and robes argued their case before a 12-member Chinese jury. There is no jury system in China.

Last year Beijing introduced a new Criminal Procedure Law to grant greater protections to defendants.

At an early-morning seminar on the reform of Chinese state enterprises, which involves putting many state assets in private hands, Mr Blair said "My country has developed an expertise" in the matter, though he avoided using the word "privatisation", which grates on the ears not just of Chinese leaders but of many in the Labour Party.