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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Just give us the fax, Mr Blair...
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website, with Tony Blair in Beijing

Tony Blair may be on a mission to further open up relations with China - but giving 100 million Chinese his fax number is probably not what he had in mind.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair has noticed a change of tone on previous China visits

Thanks to TV interviewer Shui Junyi, that is precisely what he has done.

The host of Central China Television's political programme Top Talk told his 100 million strong audience, and 100 or so students and professors in the studio, that he knew the British prime minister liked answering his letters, faxes and emails (slightly bemused smile from said PM).

"And I have another surprise for him," Mr Shui said, suddenly brandishing a large blue placard with a series of numbers on it.

"Do you recognise it?" he asked.

Mr Blair clearly didn't, only spotting it was a phone number.

"It is your fax number in your office at 10 Downing Street," grinned Mr Shui.

Satellite link

The spin doctors' faces were a picture, the prime minister did his best to look surprised (easy) and unperturbed (not quite so easy).

If I was a fax machine salesman, I would be knocking on Downing Street's door right now with a good new-for- old deal.

Mr Blair, a past master at handling these awkward moments, quickly recovered his composure and began talking about how he can't answer all the 800,000 pieces of correspondence he receives each year, much as he would probably like to.

So, it's two dinners Tony then - perhaps he really is missing the advice of former lifestyle guru Carole Caplin

Mr Shui's first "surprise", by the way, had been during a satellite link with Nottingham University's year-old Chinese campus in Ningbo, Eastern China.

Mr Shui proudly declared the bell tower was an exact replica of the one on the real Nottingham University campus and asked us all to pause as we listened to its Big Ben-style chimes strike 3 o'clock.

More bemused expressions and shuffling of feet.

The rest of the 45 minute programme was given over to a question and answer session between the prime minister and the audience.

New phase

But, despite the host's request for "a soft question now please", there was no repeat of the monstering over the war on Iraq that Mr Blair received at a similar event during his last visit here.

There were plenty of questions about EU and UK-Chinese relations, all handled with the now familiar message from Mr Blair.

The emergence of China as a massive, powerful economy set challenges for the rest of the world that could only be properly and successfully met by increased trade.

No one is over-hyping the trip this but there is a clear hope in Downing Street that these words may signal something new happening in China

Mr Blair also drove home his message on increasing democracy in China which, he believes has moved into a new phase.

The more China opened up, the more people in other countries would feel confidence in it.

"What they understand, they do not fear. What they do not understand, they can fear," he said.

It is the serious message that dominated the second and final day of this brief visit.

No timetable

The prime minister has been hugely encouraged by what he sees as a change of tone over democracy from the Chinese leader.

It has been pointed out that, on previous visits, it was always an agenda item, but one which brought a routine, un-encouraging response.

Over the past two days, Mr Blair believes he has seen less reluctance for prime minister Wen Jiabao to meet the issue head on and suggest it is one that is being actively addressed.

Officials point out there is no timetable, and the prime minister has said "only time will tell".

On Monday, Mr Wen had spoken about his belief that Chinese citizens were now being trusted with direct elections at village level. similar elections at township level might follow, with more, he suggested, in the future.

It is being said the prime minister was equally optimistic about his opposite number's tone during a private lunch on Tuesday.

No one is over-hyping the trip but there is a clear hope in Downing Street that these words may signal something new happening in China.

Diary: Blair in China
06 Sep 05 |  Politics
Chinese get a taste of Blairism
05 Sep 05 |  Politics

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