Mr Needham himself denied that he had been deliberately snubbed by Peking, describing China's refusal to invite him as 'a question of arguing about dates'.
One Whitehall source said, however, that China had clearly intended to send a signal, 'although it is very hard to decipher'.
He speculated that Peking may have wanted to show its displeasure after Taiwanese were allowed to rent a government-owned hall in Hong Kong to celebrate their national day last week. China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, complained that Britain had gone against 'its repeatedly professed desire for a better relationship' and had 'added difficulties to Sino-British relations'.
Despite extremely poor political relations between Britain and China since Chris Patten became Governor of Hong Kong in 1992, trade has increased. Mr Needham, who has visited China four times in two years, wanted to take a delegation of about 40 business executives to three southern Chinese cities during their current tour of east Asia, but was told that this was 'not convenient'.
A Whitehall source said, however, that members of the delegation had encountered no difficulty making individual arrangements to visit China.
There were other signs that economic relations were continuing as normal, he added, such as the expected visit of a Chinese vice-minister of finance to Britain next month.