Blair opts for safe goals in Shanghai

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL DIPLOMACY, a large golden cloisonne dragon boat, but no roast beef and Yorkshire pudding marked Tony Blair's final day on the Chinese mainland yesterday.

He escaped the grey political capital for a 24-hour whirlwind stop in Shanghai, the vibrant cultural and business centre that is home to more empty skyscrapers than probably any other city on Earth.

It was a day of non-stop photo-opportunities, and in the unlikely event of having to fill a spare moment, Mr Blair could have gazed from his hotel in Shanghai's Pudong development zone out on to the world's biggest construction project, a forest of office towers that did not exist 10 years ago.

The fact that most are in desperate need of tenants rarely dims the enthusiasm of a travelling politician for the commercial possibilities that this vista seems to represent.

After dicing with dissident arrests in Peking the previous day, Mr Blair opted yesterday for the safer ground of sport, money and food. Football diplomacy got off to a tense start when plans to move the photo-fixture from the hotel terrace to a patch of nearby grass came up against the intransigence of Chinese security officials.

The venue "has all been pre-discussed and mutually agreed; it can't change now", said a Chinese guard. "Mission impossible," said a defeated British official.

So Mr Blair stayed on the concrete as he awarded a British-sponsored prize to the best Chinese midfield player and accepted a personalised "Blair 1" team shirt from Crystal Palace, which in August bought two Chinese players.

A live televised Crystal Palace match last month scored a mainland Chinese viewership of tens of millions. "It's not a bad idea to be associated with China in football!" grinned Mr Blair, somewhat enigmatically.

At Shanghai's new stock exchange building he said the trading floor was "one of the most visible demonstrations that China is open for business in the world today".

In return for presiding over the renewal of a co-operation agreement between the Shanghai and London stock exchanges, he was rewarded with a golden cloisonne dragon boat "symbolising long and lasting prosperity", a quality missing in the lives of many who have recently invested in China's nascent stock markets.

Mr Blair's Shanghai experience wrapped up with a "Flavour of Britain" extravaganza, an event designed to show off the best of British cuisine. But not even this week's warm-up of Sino-British relations could breach Peking's ban on British beef, imposed because of the BSE crisis. "Of course we would have done roast beef and Yorkshire pudding," said Nick Nairn, the star chef flown over for the occasion. "The insane ban has prevented us from doing it."

None of the guests was complaining, however, as the Newcastle Brown Ale and Olde English cider flowed freely, and thousands of the 10 different "extra-large canapes" circulated as quickly as Mr Blair.

Mr Nairn's menu was a world away from fish and chips, the dish most Chinese associate with the British. "Lobster sausage on toast with salmon caviar", "Pea and mint tart", and "Chocolate and whisky roly-poly" impressed most of the Chinese guests.

"It's English Special Pie," guessed Li Zhongmeng, from the Shanghai Second Sewerage Project Construction Headquarters. "Meat, I think."

Business spin-offs, page 23

Gerald Segal, Review, page 5

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