Blair soothes China jitters

Click to follow
THE TIMING could hardly be more opportune for Tony Blair. Just hours before the Prime Minister arrives in Peking on Tuesday, China is finally due to sign the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. What better signal, Mr Blair might argue, that it is more productive to engage with China over human rights than, in his words, "simply stand on the sidelines and hector"? The scheduling of the long-promised signing appears to be Peking's welcome gift for the first British prime minister to visit China for seven years.

Mr Blair's trip will confirm the "new chapter" in Sino-British relations, following the acrimony leading up to last year's Hong Kong handover. His first stop will be the greeting ceremony on Tiananmen Square, where troops crushed the 1989 pro-democracy movement. But following President Clinton's reception on the same spot in June, even this ritual has lost its sting for Western leaders.

In the new era, Mr Clinton hails President Jiang Zemin, the head of the last major Communist state, as a man of "imagination" and "extraordinary intellect", and Mr Blair acknowledges "the quite remarkable leadership" of the Chinese government. Seven European prime ministers are due to pass through Peking this autumn. Amid a global financial crisis, Western leaders need political and economic stability in China just as much as the men inside Peking's Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

Mr Jiang's imagination has strict limits, however. Last week, ahead of the 1 October National Day celebrations, he delivered a major speech which was a throw-back to the political theatre of a past age. In the Great Hall of the People, he declared that the "great victory" over this year's floods had strengthened the "flesh-and-blood ties between the Party and the masses" and proved the "essential" leadership of the Communist Party. He spoke of Engels, Marx and dialectical materialism. The nationalism was shrill; the Chinese people "will be forever invincible" thanks to their "extraordinary spirit of cohesion", he said. Such was the overheated rhetoric for internal propaganda.

The reality is that China is now at its least cohesive for a long time, as the country's leaders well know. The impact of the Asian economic crisis has been worse than expected, unemployment has soared because of massive lay-offs at bankrupt state enterprises, and angry citizens now routinely take to the streets to complain about everything from unpaid pensions to collapsed futures- investment scams. At the dawn National Day flag- raising ceremony on Thursday, one man even flung some well-aimed mud at Chairman Mao's portrait - before being dragged away by police. The prime minister, Zhu Rongji, will reassure Mr Blair of this year's hallowed 8 per cent GDP growth target, while quietly ordering banks to renew lending to loss-making state factories and cracking down on illegal hoarding of foreign currency.

Against this confused background, China has for the past three months seen the most co-ordinated activity by dissidents since the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Across several provinces, a network of political activists has maintained pressure on the government by repeatedly trying legally to register branches of an opposition "China Democracy Party". In Peking, three dissidents have also applied - in vain - to run in local people's congress elections.

The response of the authorities has been inconsistent. Some dissidents have disappeared into detention, others have been held for a couple of weeks or a few hours. The police have even invited one or two key figures to dinner. Xu Wenli, who spent 12 years in jail and is now one of China's most active dissidents, said last week: "The police have started coming around for 'chats' and invited me out to dinner, because they want me to use my influence to stop people applying to set up an opposition party."

But the police are unpredictable; other times this year, Mr Xu has been summarily detained. Amnesty International warned last week: "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."

In academic circles, there has been a loosening this year in permissible political debate among people who are part of the official system. But these remain a small minority. The victims of China's continuing repression range from Tibetan monks to independent trade union activists, and include 230,000 people currently sentenced without trial to "Re-education Through Labour" and 2,000 people in prison for "counter-revolutionary" crimes.

China's signing of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression, religion and self-determination, will change nothing on the ground for a long time. It will be years before Peking ratifies the pact. China last year signed the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but has yet to ratify it.

None of this, however, will be allowed to tarnish Mr Blair's visit. Sino- British relations "have never been so good", according to his spokesman. Chinese officials are equally confident. In advance of Mr Blair's arrival, they have already declared that the trip will be "a complete success".