Blair feted as he bonds with Zhu

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The Independent Online
"YOU CAN feel at home in China, free to talk about anything with us. Nothing will offend us," Zhu Rongji, China's Prime Minister, told Tony Blair yesterday. "I invite you to say anything on your mind."

Fifteen months after the acrimonious return of Hong Kong to China, the two countries' prime ministers enthused about "mutual trust" and a "new chapter" in Sino-UK relations yesterday.

So much so that, in public at least, Mr Blair did not feel the need to take up Mr Zhu's offer.

"I think the fact that this morning we are able to have such a frank exchange of views, even on areas in which we disagree, is a tribute to the strength of our relationship," said Mr Blair, who had already said he would not be "hectoring" the Chinese.

It was during 50 minutes of private talks that disagreements on human rights and Tibet were raised, and then only "briefly", according to Tang Guoqiang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. A further hour of discussion was held with officials, covering mostly commercial and global issues.

For Mr Blair and Mr Zhu, yesterday was all about establishing the appropriate tone for a new "enhanced, comprehensive" partnership.

The gushing adjectives of the joint statement began the job nicely.

It was announced that President Jiang Zemin had accepted an invitation to visit the United Kingdom during the second half of next year, a trip Mr Zhu said would "push relations to a new stage" and Mr Blair added would "be a landmark in our future relations".

On the question of Kosovo, China was unequivocal in its rejection of Britain's backing for possible Nato air strikes. "China is not in favour of military action or the threat of force."

But such differences failed to dampen the upbeat diplomatic mood.

As the British flag flew over a smoggy Tiananmen Square, where Mr Blair received his 21-gun, red-carpet official welcome and military salute, the recent years of friction over Hong Kong were consigned to history.

The personal chemistry between Mr Blair and his Chinese counterpart was emphasised.

"I want to stress publicly the personal friendship which I and the British Prime Minister have forged," said Mr Zhu. "We have only met for a few times in London, but to me it seemed as if our friendship had been there for many years." Mr Blair again hailed Mr Zhu as "a real moderniser."

The next few days will reveal what genuine results - if any - Mr Blair can achieve with his carefully modulated approach to China. He is accompanied by a group of 21 British business leaders, but as of last night only modest deals were expected to be signed, such as a restricted Peking branch licence for Standard Chartered bank.

On human rights, Mr Blair's "softly, softly" approach failed to budge China's publicly intransigent stance.

According to Mr Blair's spokesman, the Prime Minister said of the private talks with Mr Zhu that "we welcome the continuing [human rights] dialogue, but concerns remain on individual cases. We are looking to Chinese officials to respond soon on the list of cases which were handed over in advance of the Prime Minister's visit". A Chinese spokesman denied having seen such a list. On Tibet, Mr Blair said he hoped talks without pre-conditions could begin between Peking and the Dalai Lama. For his one chance directly to address the Chinese people, Mr Blair, in the Forbidden City, yesterday gave a recorded interview to China Central Television, due to be broadcast in an edited version tomorrow. He recalled President Bill Clinton's press conference in June with President Zemin, during which the US leader called for progress on Tibet. "That actually was helpful because it showed everyone that China had the confidence to have these discussions and debate," said Mr Blair.

Tomorrow night CCTV will reveal whether China has the confidence to broadcast remarks even this tame.

Selling Palace, page 31

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