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Blair Voices Support for Increased Democracy in Hong Kong - 2003-07-22

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has arrived in Hong Kong, after voicing support for the increased democracy many people in the former British colony are demanding. The visit follows a three-nation Asian tour designed to increase pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.

The people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets three times this month to voice their complaints and desires. One of the most persistent calls has been for the ability to directly elect the territory's chief executive.

The prime minister of Britain, which handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, gave his support before leaving China on Tuesday. "You know also that there are proposals to move toward greater democracy in Hong Kong. Obviously, we support that," he said.

During his visit, Mr. Blair will meet Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who has been the target of much public dissatisfaction. Much of that emerged after his government tried to push through national security legislation, despite widespread concerns it would erode Hong Kong's civil liberties, which were guaranteed in the territory's post-colonial mini-constitution.

Since then, there have been calls for Mr. Tung's resignation, but the Beijing leadership gave him its renewed support last week, indicating that he will remain on the job.

Mr. Blair is also set to meet with a number of political and business leaders here, and the local political situation is expected to dominate his conversations.

The main purpose of his Asian tour has been to increase pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program, which violates several international agreements. All parties to the controversy agree the crisis must be resolved through diplomacy, but there is disagreement over a format for negotiations.

North Korea wants direct talks with the United States, which it views as a threat to its security. Washington says North Korea's Asian neighbors must be involved in the talks, and the neighbors agree.

After visiting Japan, South Korea and China, Mr. Blair said he found the region's leaders to be talking about North Korea with one voice. "The key thing that has changed in respect to North Korea is there's now pressure here, in this region, from China, from Japan, from South Korea," he said. "The pressure from China is particularly important in bringing home to the North Korean regime that they have got to change their position on this nuclear weapons program."

Asian and Western officials over the past two days have suggested that a new round of talks with North Korea might take place soon.