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China: Government Reportedly Detains Dissidents

  • Ben Partridge

London, 5 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There are as yet unconfirmed reports that the Chinese government has detained several political dissidents on the eve of a visit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to China.

Those detained by police are reported to include human rights activists who were seeking to register China's first official opposition party since the Communist takeover in 1949.

British officials said last week that Blair would be praising China's economic reform program rather than "hectoring" the Beijing regime during his four-day visit. But the reports have prompted calls for Blair to review his low-key approach to human rights in China.

Some of the calls have come from senior figures of his own Labour Party, who want Blair to press rights issues on the visit, the first to the mainland by a British prime minister in seven years. China is said to hold thousands of opponents in detention. It also executes more convicted criminals each year than the rest of the world put together.

Critics say the Blair government's reluctance to confront China over human rights has undermined its claim to pursue an "ethical" foreign policy. In January, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was reported to be "too busy" to meet leading dissident Wei Jingsheng.

Blair, who will be accompanied by a large trade delegation, will be greeted on arrival in Beijing tomorrow in Tiananmen Square, scene of the 1989 massacre by troops of pro-democracy activists.

His visit will set the seal on improved relations after severe strains in the run-up last year to the British handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. A British spokesman said: "We are no longer plagued by our difficult past."

Sino-British relations had been at a low ebb for the past few years because of former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten's attempts to democratize the colony before it reverted to Chinese rule.

Blair is due to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, Zhu Rongji, and will also meet with President Jiang Zemin, leader of the Communist party.

The Asian financial crisis is expected to top the agenda of his talks with Zhu. Also listed for discussion are the sharp falls in world equity and currency markets, environmental issues, the global fight against drugs and related crime, and illegal immigration.

On the eve of his departure, Blair said there was no point in denying that Britain had its differences with China over political and civil rights, freedom of speech, the treatment of dissent, religious freedom and the importance of democracy. He also referred to Tibet, scene of Chinese rights violations, according to critics. But Blair made clear that "persuasion and dialogue" would be his watchword in China rather than "confrontation and empty rhetoric."

On the eve of the visit, Beijing was due to sign the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Blair is the first of seven European prime ministers scheduled to visit Beijing this autumn. All of them are to seek trade contracts.