The British Prime Minister's one opportunity to address a vast audience of ordinary Chinese people fell victim to the sensitivities of the propaganda cadres. Out went praise for China's "confidence" to debate Tibet, out went Mr Blair's forecast of the imminent demise of "fundamentalist ideology", and out went flattery of China's "modernising" Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji.
Any foreign leader who arrives in China with an ethical foreign policy inevitably draws comparison with President Bill Clinton. In June, the US leader sparred good-naturedly with President Jiang Zemin on human rights, Tibet and democracy in an unprecedented joint press conference which stunned China when it was broadcast live across the country. Mr Clinton's address at Peking University was also aired live nationally.
Mr Blair, however, was refused live access to the airwaves during his three days on the mainland, despite signalling before his arrival that he did not believe in "hectoring" China over human rights. So the first British leader to visit for seven years had to make do with the pre-recorded television interview, plus a signed article in the People's Daily and upbeat coverage in the state-controlled media of the "new chapter" in Sino-British relations. His most forceful words, in a speech to a British Chamber of Commerce dinner in Peking, were barely mentioned in the domestic press.
To make an impression on the Chinese people, by far the most important event was the 13-minute CCTV interview, shown in a peak evening slot on Wednesday night, when audiences reach 200 million. Mr Blair, casual in blue shirt-sleeves, had been interviewed the previous day in Peking's Forbidden City. The litmus test was what would stay in the broadcast.
Chinese viewers were allowed to hear him say that "of course there will be differences" over human rights. There was "an acknowledgment on the Chinese side that there is progress to be made, and an acknowledgment on our side that progress is being made", he said. He spoke of dialogue, but "not in a sort of grandstanding hectoring way" - words the cadres might themselves have drafted.
Unsuitable for Chinese ears, on the other hand, was Mr Blair's reference to Tibet. He described the Clinton-Jiang press conference as "helpful because it showed everyone that China has the confidence to have these issues discussed and debated" - but not enough confidence, it turned out, for this part of Mr Blair's interview to be broadcast.
In the world's last major communist state, the Prime Minister's musings on a "seismic shift" in political ideas in the new millennium was simply a non-starter for anyone familiar with CCTV's normal output. Nor did a pitch for the Third Way get an airing. Dismissing the "battle between extreme forms of socialism, extreme forms of capitalism" as over, and saying that "fundamentalist ideology has gone", was too near the bone. Just one week earlier, Mr Jiang had stood in the Great Hall of the People and in a major speech lauded the "flesh-and-blood" ties between the party and the masses, and the "essential" leadership of the Communist Party.
Mr Blair misjudged Chinese political protocol. It just does not do repeatedly and publicly to praise his reformist counterpart, even if it is true that Mr Zhu is the cleverest and most impressive Chinese leader. The much-repeated official mantra is that Mr Jiang is the "core" of the leadership, and most compliments must be paid to him, not his colleagues. So out came the cutting scissors for Mr Blair's "very great admiration" for "the real moderniser" Mr Zhu.
The article in the People's Daily, whose stodgy political content has halved circulation to 3 million, turned out to be a very tame offering. Sentiments about co-operation and praise for China's non-devaluation of its currency, and even Mr Blair's declaration that human rights were "universal", were all in line with China's official pronouncements. Mention of the Northern Ireland peace process, as an oblique reference to Tibet, would have missed the mark with a Chinese readership which tends to agree with the government about the "splittist" activities of the Dalai Lama.
Like all friendly visiting foreign statesmen, Mr Blair was given fulsome coverage in the state-controlled media, but at the price of China scoring its propaganda points. Mr Zhu, it was explained, had praised Mr Blair's role "in pushing the European Union to improve its attitude towards human rights in China" - a direct reference to the EU's much-criticised decision earlier this year to drop its annual censure of China's human rights record at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Any Chinese person who wanted to hear about dissident arrests during Mr Blair's visit, or criticism by Western human rights groups of his trip, would have had to rely on the BBC World Service radio Chinese-language broadcasts - at least when the Chinese authorities were not jamming the signal.
WHAT THEY DIDN'T HEAR
"I think when President Clinton was here and spoke about Tibet and had that press conference with President Jiang Zemin, that actually was helpful because it showed everyone that China has the confidence to have these issues discussed and debated."
"I think what is interesting today is that the new millennium will mark a seismic shift in political ideas and political attitudes. The battle between extreme forms of socialism, extreme forms of capitalism, that marked the 20th century, I think that is over, and I think that fundamentalist ideology has gone."
"On the issue of international crime and drugs, we are now working with China and with other countries to try to get the right type of convention together which will allow us to chase after those people who are engaged in drug smuggling and attempt to again get a process together where we can change the behaviour of those countries that are stimulating the drugs trade. Now China's role in that, I think, is tremendously important."
"I would say that Premier Zhu Rongji is himself a real moderniser."
"With 25 per cent of the world in recession, and with some of the Asian economies having suffered negative growth rates of anything up to 15 per cent, this is a serious economic situation. And coupled with the problems in Russia and elsewhere, it has a serious consequence for us, which is why we have got to act upon it."Reuse content