Blair steps in to help Chinese dissident

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR'S "softly, softly" tactics on human rights in China were upset by the heavy hand of the Chinese public security apparatus yesterday. Xu Wenli, one of China's most active dissidents, was detained by police for about six hours for questioning, prompting the British Prime Minister in Peking to make urgent inquiries about his fate.

By the time Mr Blair met President Jiang Zemin yesterday afternoon, on his second day in China, Mr Xu had been released and the British message on human rights had sharpened perceptibly. The Prime Minister's entourage did not claim the credit for the release, but a Downing Street spokesman said: "We hope our response may have played a part, but certainly it is something we have taken very seriously."

Mr Xu, who has spent 12 out of the last 17 years in jail, first fell foul of the authorities during the 1978-9 Democracy Wall movement.

The detention forced Mr Blair onto the back foot, especially given the criticism in Britain this week over his deliberately non-confrontational handling of human rights issues in Peking. By lunchtime yesterday, he was talking of the "fundamental disagreement" between Britain and China over human rights.

After Mr Xu had been released, in the wake of the British inquiries, Mr Blair tried to make the best of the day in a speech to 600 businessmen at a British Chamber of Commerce in China banquet. "When incidents like the questioning of a dissident this morning do occur, there is at least a process of dialogue in which they can be addressed and resolved," he said.

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