When Tony Blair visited China in late 2007 – shortly after stepping down as the UK’s prime minister – his trip could hardly have been described as altruistic. The former Labour MP flew home $500,000 better off, after making a speech and hosting a cocktail party at a villa complex in Dongguan.
The luxury villas were built by Chinese tycoon, Chen Runguang – who grandiosely named the development the World is Mine. But the Chinese media quickly rechristened them the ‘Blair Villas’ – and noted that four-bedroom homes sold for $5 million a pop.
Blair’s trip seemed to work. The developer enjoyed a frenzy of interest in the 132 lakeside homes (located near Hong Kong) and more than 100 buyers put down a $100,000 deposit. Billboards featuring Blair and rolling plasma TV footage of his visit kept interest high. There were even hints that one of the villas might be added to the Blair property portfolio.
The reflected glory of Blair – who compared the villas to an English lawyer’s country home – gave cachet to the development. As one Shenzhen businessman told the South China Morning Post: “Now Blair has been here, this will become the most exclusive development in China. I want to buy here as an investment before the price goes up further.”
The British press, meanwhile, were more interested in Blair’s fee for less than a day’s work. Another lucrative chapter in the “Blair Rich Project”, sniffed the Independent newspaper.
But Blair’s return to China last week had loftier goals: to save the world, no less.
The still influential figure met Premier Wen Jiabao to discuss climate change – in an attempt to persuade him to lead an agreement on emissions reduction at the Copenhagen Summit in December.
Blair was visiting China on behalf of the Climate Group – a non-governmental organisation that would like to see a global deal on the environment backed by both China and the US.
Rarely at a loss for words, Blair was optimistic on Copenhagen’s prospects. “The level of seriousness on this is absolutely undoubted,” he told the China Daily. “I think the difference from a few years ago is that there’s enormous goodwill and determination.”
Possibly having picked up a few phrases from his son Leo – who is learning Chinese – Blair used the word weiji, meaning crisis (or opportunity). “It’s a crisis, but it’s also an opportunity to restructure our economies, to invest. So let us invest in clean technologies for the future,” advised Blair.
A challenge, yes. But Blair seemed to think that the prospects of finding solutions are now better than ever. “I think there is a desire to reach agreement at Copenhagen in a way that wasn’t there 12 years ago at Kyoto. And here in China, the leadership is absolutely committed to tackling this issue. It’s become a major part of the country’s domestic policy.”
He acknowledged China’s dilemmas too, especially the balancing of action on climate change with economic growth. But he was still hopeful that joint action could achieve breakthroughs: “I really believe this time that China and America need not be in collision on this issue. They can cooperate to find a common solution and I think that is their shared collective will.”
British readers will recognise the upbeat, polished sentiment, and recall that Blair spins better than a tumble dryer.
But coverage of the trip in the Chinese press suggest that the Blair talent for dazzling an audience persists, and that a journey back to the Middle Kingdom in future may be well worth his while. A lucrative speaking tour, perhaps?
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