- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

BEIJING — Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday called for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but raised the sensitive issue carefully while praising his Chinese hosts for cooperation on North Korea and other issues.

On the third leg of a marathon Asian tour, Mr. Blair tried to repair relations that were strained by the Iraq war, holding “excellent and important” talks with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.

It was a day of ceremony and diplomacy for Mr. Blair, who was pressing on with a trip darkened by a political row at home over disputed weapons intelligence used to justify war in Iraq.

Opposition lawmakers had demanded Mr. Blair cut short his trip and recall Parliament after last week’s suicide by a British defense adviser at the center of the dispute.

Mr. Blair said Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, had chosen a “sensible way to proceed” by promising to consult with the public on a proposed national-security law that critics say will restrict civil liberties.

Concern over the bill prompted a protest by 500,000 people July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 return of the former British colony to Chinese rule. Mr. Tung has rejected calls to resign, and Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen declared their support for him Saturday.

Mr. Blair, who flies to Hong Kong today, told reporters, “There are proposals to move toward greater democracy in Hong Kong. Obviously we support that. I hope very much we can get that process of change back on track.”

Britain has said it has a moral obligation to Hong Kong, but Mr. Blair appeared to be choosing his words carefully.

Mr. Wen told Mr. Blair that since Hong Kong was handed over in 1997, China has strictly carried out the “one country, two systems” formula giving Hong Kong autonomy and guaranteeing the freedoms of its people, Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Blair was given a grand welcome at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing, with a 19-gun artillery salute in Tiananmen Square. The British national anthem was played by a military band.

He said there had been disagreement over Iraq with China — a fellow permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that opposed American and British military action against Saddam Hussein. But he noted that China supported reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

The prime minister said he and Chinese leaders discussed North Korea, Iraq, the Middle East and India-Pakistan tensions. He praised China’s diplomatic efforts.

“What’s interesting is the degree to which the Chinese leadership here now are very much trying to assist in resolving some of these most difficult questions,” Mr. Blair said.

On North Korea, he said, “They made it clear they would continue to work for a peaceful solution to this issue and one that does definitively put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”

Beijing, North Korea’s last major ally, says it doesn’t want nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and wants the issue resolved peacefully.

The first legs of Mr. Blair’s Asian tour — Japan and South Korea — were overshadowed by the suicide of military adviser David Kelly.

The former U.N. weapons inspector was the main source of a British Broadcasting Corp. story that the Blair government inflated the threat of Iraqi weapons before the war.

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