Blair defends `softly, softly' approach to talks on Tibet

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The Independent Online
A TIBET human rights group called on Tony Blair yesterday to press the Chinese government for a full investigation of up to 12 reported deaths at Drapchi jail in Lhasa. The inmates died after demonstrations by monks and prisoners in May during a European Union "troika" mission to Tibet, which included the British ambassador to Peking.

Mr Blair leaves today for a five-day visit to Peking, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the first prime ministerial trip to China for seven years. While the visit is supposed to set the seal on a "modern relationship" after the transfer of Hong Kong, the spotlight will also be on Britain's self- declared ethical foreign policy and China's dismal human rights record. Mr Blair, writing yesterday, said: "I do not intend to lecture or play to the gallery. I want progress, not grandstanding."

He defended his "softly, softly" approach. Although he will raise the general issue of human rights with Zhu Rongji, the Chinese Prime Minister, he is unlikely to go public on individual cases, to avoid embarrassing his hosts. Downing Street said yesterday he would need more information about the latest arrests before deciding whether to take up the dissidents' plight.

Mr Blair, who faces criticism from pro-democracy groups and the Tories for his stance, pointed to the Northern Ireland peace process as an example of what dialogue could achieve. "I still believe persuasion and dialogue achieve more than confrontation and empty rhetoric ... There are no differences so great they cannot be overcome."

An effective dissident information network may well petition Mr Blair during his trip to raise specific human rights cases.

Peking, anxious to smooth Mr Blair's path, will finally sign the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights today, although actual ratification will take years. Yesterday police also freed Tang Yuanjuan, one of about a dozen dissidents detained and then released in recent weeks.

The human rights situation in Tibet, however, remains bleak. Three British representatives of the Free Tibet Campaign have flown to Peking for Mr Blair's visit "to monitor his behaviour and the response of the Chinese".