PM seeks trade and democracy in mission to China

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Tony Blair was treated to a lavish 19-gun artillery salute and a goose-stepping parade of Chinese armed forces in the heart of Beijing yesterday as he struggled to tread a difficult line between pursuing a big expansion of trade relations with the country's leadership and pressing for more democracy in Hong Kong.

Only four days after praising the US President for bequeathing the "light of liberty" to the world, Mr Blair inspected a 120-strong guard of honour in Tiananmen Square, the scene of the shootings of demonstrating students in 1989. He had been met at the Great Hall of the People by the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao.

Mr Blair flies to Hong Kong today after travelling to Shanghai with a group of businessmen amid calls to press for greater democracy in the former British colony. The Beijing-installed leadership has been forced to reconsider its bitterly contested anti-subversion law after three demonstrations in protest at it this month.

Before a dinner with President Hu Jintao, Mr Blair told reporters the decision by the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Tung Chee Wa, to withdraw the bill for further consultations was a "sensible way to proceed". He added: "There are proposals to move toward greater democracy in Hong Kong. Obviously we support that. I hope very much we can get that process of change back on track."

Mr Blair will hold talks tomorrow with Mr Tung, who was summoned to Beijing at the weekend to discuss progress of the bill.

Although President Hu Jintao pledged his full backing for the increasingly beleaguered Chief Executive, he said after the talks on Saturday with Mr Tung that he was confident the controversial legislation would "gain the understanding, support and recognition of the broad masses of the people in Hong Kong after careful and extensive consultation".

Mr Blair has also been under pressure to raise human rights issues with the Chinese leadership, including restrictions on free expression in Tibet and the use of the war against terror as what Human Rights Watch claims is a cover for human rights abuses in Xinjiang province and other parts of China.

Mr Blair, enjoying a brief respite from the David Kelly controversy, said yesterday: "Those of us who have been coming to China ­ but only at irregular intervals ­ will notice the amazing change that has taken place in China and this is an absolutely central relationship for Britain." He said Mr Wen had said he wanted the UK to be China's "leading European partner" and that was an "important signal we should respond to".

Mr Blair, who opened the new office of Britain's Chambers of Commerce and also took advice from the Chinese leadership on how to pursue Britain's Olympic bid, declared that the possibilities for the UK ­ the biggest European investor in China ­ "are absolutely enormous. The Chinese market is going to be a huge opportunity," he added.