Amnesty calls for human rights agenda

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AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL called on Tony Blair yesterday to make his visit to China "one of real substance on human rights" and urged the Prime Minister to "make a robust public statement" during his tour. Mr Blair arrives in China on Tuesday for a five-day visit to Peking, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

"Dissidents who attempt to contact the British delegation face serious risks and Mr Blair should be prepared to act quickly should there be reports of dissident arrests before or during his visit," said a statement from Amnesty, the human rights group based in London.

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair would not be "hectoring" or table thumping but seeking change in China through dialogue and persuasion.

In Peking, the Chinese government has switched on the charm offensive. Zhen Jianguo, at the West European department of the Foreign Ministry, said China had made preparations to ensure that this "major event" would be "a complete success", taking bilateral relations "to a higher level".

Peking is smoothing the way by planning finally to sign the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on Monday.

It is a very long seven years since the last British prime ministerial visit, when John Major had to go to Peking to win China's agreement on Hong Kong's new airport. He was embarrassed by being the first Western leader to visit after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. From 1993 onwards, Sino-British relations went from bad to worse, as Peking clashed with Chris Patten over the last governor's attempt to democratise Hong Kong.

What Mr Zhen coyly referred to as "a period of set-back" did not end until Hong Kong was back in China's hands. Just hours before the handover on 30 June 1997, Mr Blair met President Jiang Zemin in Hong Kong and both sides committed themselves to "a new beginning". Mr Blair's visit is supposed to set the seal on the new era. He is bringing with him about 20 senior businessmen from companies including Shell, BP, Rolls-Royce, British Aerospace, Standard Chartered and Royal & Sun Alliance. Mr Zhen said the visit would be "a gratifying one" for the businessmen.

But so far it seems to be China rather than British business which has benefited. According to British trade statistics, in the first half of this year exports to the UK jumped 20 per cent to pounds 1.33bn, while UK sales to China fell 0.05 per cent to just pounds 425.2m.

Britain is the largest European direct investor in China. Chinese figures cite cumulative actual investment of $6.12bn (pounds 3.7bn) by the end of July 1998. This represents a surge in British direct investment of about pounds 1.26bn in the 13 months after the Hong Kong handover. But this has been a time when overall foreign investment in China has greatly weakened, both because of the impact of the Asian economic crisis and the difficulty of making any money in China. In the first eight months of this year, for instance, total actual foreign investment in China slipped 1.45 per cent.

The key question is whether British investors are able to drive a harder bargain. Peking holds out contracts as a carrot for smooth diplomatic relations, but it is China which needs foreign investors more than the other way around.