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.

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