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Tuesday, October 6, 1998 Published at 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Blair heralds new 'partnership' with China

Human rights and trade links dominate Mr Blair's agenda

Political Correspondent Jon Sopel: "This visit is primarily about business"
The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chinese counterpart, Zhu Rongji, say they have opened a new chapter in Anglo-Chinese relations and built a "comprehensive partnership".

The statement comes as Mr Blair begins a six-day tour of China, which will take him to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and which will be dominated by two issues - trade and human rights.

[ image: Mr Blair and his wife were met with an honour guard]
Mr Blair and his wife were met with an honour guard
Mr Blair is keen not to appear to be lecturing the Chinese Government on human rights.

"Trade is very important between China and Britain but not necessarily more important than human rights," Mr Blair told reporters on a visit to Beijing's Forbidden City.

The two countries are eager to put behind them the years of bitter wrangling over Hong Kong - although the future of the territory is one of the items for discussion.

Strong relationship

Speaking after talks with Prime Minister Zhu, Mr Blair said there had been "a frank exchange of views", which had been a "testament to the strength of our relationship."

Arriving in Beijing, Mr Blair and his wife Cherie attended a welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square, scene of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.

A similar ceremony at the start of President Clinton's visit in June sparked condemnation from human rights groups.

Prime Minister Tony Blair: "New era of British-Chinese relations"
Mr Blair has made an effort to get off on the right foot, and it was announced that President Jiang Zemin will make a reciprocal state visit to the UK in the autumn of 1999 - the first such visit by a Chinese head of state.

New ground

Like President Clinton before him, Mr Blair is keen to break new ground in China.

[ image: The People's Daily called Mr Blair a
The People's Daily called Mr Blair a "brave reformer and courageous leader"
On Tuesday, he became the first foreign leader to have an article published in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Government.

Avoiding any explicit criticism of China's human rights record, he said "persuasion and dialogue achieve more than confrontation and empty rhetoric."

James Miles reports on the lavish welcome ceremony
On the flight to Beijing he defended his decision to tread softly on the question of human rights.

"We will make our position clear as we always do, but the best way to do it is without grandstanding or hectoring," he said.

Open talks

[ image: Premier Zhu Rongji: Willing to talk on any subject]
Premier Zhu Rongji: Willing to talk on any subject
After initial talks, Mr Zhu said he did not expect his visitor to refrain from the subject of civil rights.

"You can feel free to talk about anything... Nothing will offend us," said the Chinese premier.

Mr Zhu, who was appointed prime minister in March, has surprised many observers and politicians with his willingness to discuss subjects that were once taboo with the Chinese leadership.

Accompanied by a large business delegation, Mr Blair is hoping to enhance trade relations with China.

In a surprise move, Downing Street announced that former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine will head a new Anglo-Chinese trade forum.

Britain is Europe's leading investor in China and Downing Street said he was the "right man for the job".

Human rights pressure

The visit follows China's signing of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in New York, and Mr Blair is under pressure from human right organisations to take a tough stance on civil liberties and the occupation of Tibet.

During talks with Mr Zhu he urged China to open unconditional talks with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The meeting also covered China's handling of the Asian economic crisis, and international co-operation on crime and terrorism, including cracking down on gangsters who run immigration rackets - to Britain, among other places.

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