Dissident's release saves Blair's face

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TONY BLAIR yesterday came face to face with the reality of China's human rights problems and the potential embarrassment that Peking's security apparatus can inflict on visiting statesmen.

On one side of town, in a five-star hotel, the Prime Minister was hosting a satellite link-up with British businessmen operating around China, and a mock British trial was in progress to demonstrate the principles of Western justice. Elsewhere, Peking's police were knocking on the door of Xu Wenli, one of the mainland's most prominent political activists.

The situation had all the makings of a public relations disaster for a politician who just 24 hours earlier had repeatedly championed the "softly, softly" approach to human rights.

For Mr Xu, 54, who has spent 12 of the past 17 years in jail for political activism, the summons to the police station is an occupational hazard. "These were the same people who always come looking for me. Police are always keeping an eye on people like me. This happens every month or so, but the past two times the police were especially polite," he said after his release.

The fact that he is still "at large" and providing a focus for much of the dissident activity in China is a measure of some relative progress on human rights in the past year. Mr Xu talks regularly to the foreign media, and it was the Chinese government's misfortune that just the previous evening he had been featured prominently in Mr Blair's country in a BBC Newsnight report.

The six hours of Mr Xu's detention were fraught ones for Mr Blair and his entourage. Even Chinese diplomats, once they learnt of the clumsy timing of Mr Xu's disappearance, seemed to have embarked on a damage-limitation exercise, aware of the criticism Mr Blair was facing at home for his new China policy.

The first media ambush occurred at lunchtime, when Mr Blair faced a BBC television crew. By this time, reporters were aware of the story, but the Prime Minister was not. The British line on human rights started to stiffen perceptibly.

Why was Mr Blair less forthright than President Clinton on human rights in China? "We are very forthright too," responded Mr Blair. "That is why we have said there has got to be more progress. And although we acknowledge the progress that has been made, a lot more has got to be done."

He would make it clear to President Jiang Zemin during the scheduled afternoon meeting that Britain and China had "this fundamental disagreement" on human rights.

On a visit to a street market, Mr Blair was cornered by ITN. By this time, various officials on both sides were trying to resolve the issue. Mr Blair spoke directly to the Chinese ambassador to London, who is accompanying him on this trip. Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were alerted, and calls were placed to the relevant public security offices.

By 4pm, Mr Xu had been freed - much to the relief, presumably, of Mr Blair, who walked into his meeting with President Jiang just 30 minutes later. It was time for the Prime Minister to be seen to make his points. Mr Xu's case was raised with the Chinese President.

A 20-minute discussion was held on Tibet, with Mr Jiang giving the standard lecture on Peking's contribution to the Himalayan region. Mr Blair "listened with interest", according to Mr Tang. And, according to the British, then firmly reiterated Britain's position that China should embark upon a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, without preconditions.

By the time of his keynote speech to the British Chamber of Commerce in China, Mr Blair's human rights sales pitch had been refined. "Progress is not a matter of slogans or gestures," he said, adding that Britain had "serious concerns and differences" on human rights. He referred directly to "incidents like the questioning of a dissident this morning", but insisted, "on human rights, we can also move away from the sterile point-scoring of the past".