Hong Kong handover: Blair accepts invitation to visit China

Prime Minister tells Jiang that historic day marks new dawn in Sino-British relations

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, last night accepted an invitation from President Jiang Zemin to visit China. During a 40-minute meeting, during which the Chinese president joked about Mr Blair's youth and how to overcome jetlag, the two leaders talked about "a new beginning" for a bilateral relationship which has spent the past five years on a roller-coaster of rows and recriminations.

About three hours before the British flag came down for the last time in Hong Kong, Mr Blair told the Chinese President: "I would very much like to see that as this chapter in our history ends, we open a new chapter for the future, one of partnership and prosperity for our countries." He said that Britain wanted a relationship "based on the 21st century, putting the battles and struggles of the past behind us because we want a new relationship for a new world". A red bound volume of Shakespeare's collected works was presented to Mr Jiang, who tends to be fond of quoting the bard when meeting foreigners.

Mr Jiang, remembering how, as mayor of Shanghai, he received the Queen in 1986, congratulated Mr Blair on his election victory and issued a formal invitation to Mr Blair to visit China. A couple of hours later, Mr Jiang was able to renew his contact with British royalty with a brief exchange with Prince Charles.

Coming from a country where top leaders tend to reach their position long after they are pensionable, the 70-year-old Chinese President was bedazzled by the 44-year-old Blair's youth. "If there is one thing I have to admire about you, you are a young man. And it is pointless to be jealous of that because it is an objective reality." His youth, it was suggested, might have helped him with the jet-lag.

No time scale was discussed for a Blair visit to China, which will be the first by a British prime minister since a disastrous trip in 1991 by John Major. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, earlier told his counterpart, Qian Qichen, that he would like to visit before the end of this year. This autumn, Mr Jiang has both the Communist party congress and a state visit to the United States, so Mr Blair will probably have to wait until next year. He last visited China in 1988. "I was even younger then," quipped Mr Blair.

The good-natured exchanges of the meeting, however, will not be enough to ensure a smooth ride during the next phase of Sino-British relations. And Hong Kong is still going to be the sticking point. Mr Blair repeatedly emphasised that China's adherence to the Joint Declaration, including free and fair elections, was a prerequisite to a new era in bilateral ties. He also had talks with the Prime Minister, Li Peng.

Hong Kong's new leader, Tung Chee-hwa, promised elections by next May "at the latest", which would replace the China-appointed legislature sworn in last night. However, Mr Tung intends to change the voting system even for the minority of directly-elected seats, and the proposed new electoral systems would all result in a reduction in the number of seats likely to be won by the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen how tough the British government will be if it does not approve of the new system.

Mr Blair was also said to have stressed freedom of the press and human rights in Hong Kong during the meetings with Chinese leaders and Mr Tung. But Hong Kong's political activists will be waiting to see whether Britain starts soft-peddling in its avowed commitment to keep an eye on China's stewardship of the territory, preferring to put first the future potential trade and business links with the mainland.

Friendly overtures by China are likely to frost over if Peking decides London is trying to "meddle in China's internal affairs" - an accusation which tends to be defined broadly enough to cover anything. The British position is that as the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group continues its work until the turn of the century, this gives London the right to monitor developments in Hong Kong.

In the short term, with the vibes sounding much more buoyant than for a long time, the Government's biggest challenge will be trawl through London's bookshops. During last night's meeting, Mr Jiang said he was interested in a English novel called Waterloo Bridge, but neither Mr Blair nor his entourage had heard of it.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Life and Style
Men with beards rejoice: Your beard probably doesn't harbour faeces-like bacteria
health
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before