BEIJING -- British Prime Minister John Major, the first Wester leader to visit here since the Tiananmen Square massacre two years ago, lectured Chinese Premier Li Peng at length yesterday on the world's concerns about human rights abuses in China.
At one point, Mr. Major cited a letter that he received from an opposition member of the British Parliament in order to illustrate "the strength of concerns about human rights that exist across all strands of opinion in my country," he said later.
But the Chinese premier, long identified with the bloody Tiananmen crackdown, had his own letter at the ready -- a letter from a Chinese historian reminding him "not to forget" the human rights abuses committed by Western colonial powers in China during the 19th century.
Mr. Li's sharp reply, outlined later by a Chinese spokesman, was more than merely another example of the slim dialogue on human rights that Britain and the United States now claim to have begun with China's hard-line regime.
It also was especially appropriate, for the main purpose of Mr. Major's controversial visit was to sign a Sino-British agreement allowing the construction of a new airport in Hong Kong, a pact viewed as a key step in turning the longtime British colony over to Chinese control in 1997.
Mr. Major's three-day visit -- which effectively ends China's post-Tiananmen, diplomatic isolation from the West -- was part of the price to get China to accede to the new Hong Kong airport, a facility critical to the city's continued prosperity.
And at a news conference last night, Mr. Major defended his journey, which ends today, as "necessary" to ensure Hong Kong's future.
"The world has not forgotten the events of June 1989," he said in reference to the killings of at least hundreds of pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square by China's army, "but we face a choice.
"On the one hand, we can make ourselves feel better by armchair denunciations of China. . . . On the other hand, we can talk to Chinese leaders in the interest of Hong Kong, in the interest of human rights and for the sake of a more peaceful world. I have no doubt which is the right choice to make," he said.
Mr. Major's effort to raise the cause of political and religious dissidents in China did not immediately appear to have changed China's well-cultivated stance that it is willing to listen to criticism on human rights but that such matters are its own affair and subject to different standards in China than in the West "due to their different social systems."
Mr. Major, however, vowed that he would continue putting "unrelenting, unremitting" pressure on China over human rights until it produced results.
"These are not matters that we will let go," he said.
A similar pledge was made here yesterday by three visiting U.S. legislators, who warned China not to take for granted the unconditional renewal of its favorable trade status with the United States this year despite President Bush's support for the measure.
The president is expected to veto congressional efforts to condition renewal of the profitable status for China on improvement in its human rights record.
However, Representatives Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Ben Jones, D-Ga., and John Miller, R-Wash., said that they intended this fall to step up their campaign to garner enough votes to override the anticipated veto and that their chance of success had been enhanced by the recent fall of communism in the Soviet Union.
Pelosi said they would attempt this week to visit two imprisoned Chinese dissidents, Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, who have become the focus of international concern.
Ms. Pelosi said the legislators also would ask Chinese officials to account for almost 1,000 political prisoners whose names have been gathered by overseas Chinese dissident groups.
China repeatedly has refused to render such accountings to foreign officials. And it recently has rejected other attempts by foreigners to visit the two jailed dissidents, who are believed to be ailing and to have carried on a hunger strike, at least briefly, beginning three weeks ago.