China's Wen kicks off UK visit, as Beijing frees activist
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Britain on Sunday, in a European trip aimed at cementing trade links, as Bejing freed high-profile human rights activist Hu Jia in a move seen as defusing tensions.
Wen arrived in the central English city of Birmingham late Saturday as news emerged that Hu, one of China's most prominent prisoners of conscience, was to be released.
Beijing is seeking to gain a greater foothold in Europe, but has faced fierce criticism from the West over its human rights record -- and in particular a recent crackdown on dissidents.
Hu, 37, was jailed on subversion charges in April 2008 after angering the ruling Communist Party through years of bold campaigning for civil rights, the environment and AIDS sufferers.
His release followed that of outspoken Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei last week, but Hu looked likely to be similarly muzzled along with other top dissidents.
Britain's Foreign Office has yet to give any official reaction to the release of Hu, who spent more than three years in prison.
However, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the news -- but her spokesman stressed the bloc's demands for Beijing to ensure full freedoms are respected.
And Germany said it will press human rights issues at its first joint cabinet meeting with China later this week, including the conditions of Ai's release, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
London has also been among international critics, with Foreign Secretary William Hague repeatedly speaking out against Ai's detention and the crackdown against activists.
Wen visited England on Sunday before holding talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday and attending the UK-China summit -- which is an annual event during which major investment deals will be announced.
The Chinese premier is on a three-country tour of Europe with 13 ministers and a large business delegation.
He visited the MG car plant in Longbridge, Birmingham, which was for many years a symbol of British manufacturing dominance but is now owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp, which is China's largest automaker.
Wen will later indulge his interest in Shakespeare with a visit to the bard's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he will be treated to a short performance.
The premier, who began his trip in Hungary, will leave Britain on Monday for Germany, where he will underline his support for eurozone economies that have been rocked by a debt crisis, with Greece on the brink of a second bailout.
Around the time Wen arrived in England late Saturday, China released Hu after he completed a sentence for subversion, and he returned to his home outside Beijing early Sunday morning, his wife said in a Twitter posting.
"On a sleepless night, Hu Jia arrived home at 2:30 am. Peaceful, very happy. Need to rest for awhile. Thanks to you all," Zeng Jinyan, also an activist, wrote on her Twitter account.
Hu's release came several days after Ai was freed on bail after nearly three months in police custody.
Foreign Secretary William Hague had given Ai's release only a cautious welcome, saying that "serious questions" remained about the circumstances of his detention and legal status.
It is Wen's second Europe tour in just nine months, highlighting a shift in China's interest towards investing in the continent after having ploughed money in recent years into Africa, Australia, Latin America and the United States.
Beijing has vowed to be a long term investor in the European debt market and has repeatedly expressed its confidence in the eurozone, and has invested an increasing portion of its foreign exchange reserves in euro-denominated assets.
© 2011 AFP