China's Wen visits Britain amid release of rights activist

27th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Britain on Sunday and sought to strengthen trade links, as Bejing freed dissident activist Hu Jia in a move seen as defusing tensions over human rights.

Wen arrived in the central English city of Birmingham on Saturday on the second leg of an European mini-tour, while news emerged that Hu, one of China's most prominent prisoners of conscience, was to be released.

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 Ai Weiwei last week.

On his first full day in Britain on Sunday, Wen launched the first new MG car to be made in 15 years, the MG6 model, hailing it as a potent symbol of friendship between London and Beijing.

The new MG6 will be assembled at the MG car plant in Longbridge, Birmingham, which is now owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC), China's largest automaker.

"The successful cooperation of the production of the MG6 and other MG vehicles is a symbol of the friendship between China and the UK," said Wen, speaking at Longbridge.

"The model can be summed up as designed in the UK, manufactured in China and assembled in the UK, thereby making the most of China's capital and markets, as well as the UK's technology and managerial expertise."

Outside the factory gates, several dozen protesters were gathered to demonstrate against the visit, including supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement, banned in China, and Free Tibet campaigners.

"Cameron and Wen. Human rights before trade," read the placards of some of the protesters.

The British government's trade minister Stephen Green also attended the MG6 launch and described SAIC as a "pioneer for Chinese investors in the UK".

The Chinese premier later held separate meetings with former British leaders Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and vowed that support to Britain and Europe would be "in concrete actions," according to China's state run news agency Xinhua.

Wen was keen to deepen China's "exchanges and cooperation with Britain and Europe", adding it was in the "fundamental interests" of both parties and vital for world peace and stability, reported the news provider.

Wen will hold talks with current British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday and attend a UK-China summit -- at which Beijing is expected to unveil huge investment deals.

Meanwhile, Chinese dissident Hu returned home earlier Sunday after completing a jail term for subversion -- but seemed likely to be muzzled anew.

The human rights activist's release after more than three years in prison comes after Ai emerged last Thursday from nearly three months in police custody amid a government crackdown on dissent.

Hu is widely expected to be hit with the same strict curbs as those applied to Ai and a range of other activists and rights lawyers, who have apparently been ordered to keep quiet in exchange for their freedom.

Hu returned to his home on Sunday morning, his wife and fellow activist Zeng Jinyan said on Twitter.

Britain's Foreign Office has yet to give an official reaction to Hu's release.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the news -- but her spokesman stressed the bloc's demands for Beijing to treat Hu fairly and accord him "full rights" after his release.

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 been among international critics, with Foreign Secretary William Hague repeatedly speaking out against Ai's detention.

Earlier on Sunday, Wen indulged his interest in Shakespeare with a visit to the bard's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was treated to performances of extracts from the play "Hamlet".

The premier, who began his trip in Hungary, will leave Britain on Monday for Germany, where he will stress his support for eurozone economies that have been rocked by a debt crisis, with Greece on the brink of a second bailout.

© 2011 AFP

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