By Andrew Sparrow and Richard Spencer in Beijing
China is showing signs of an "unstoppable momentum" propelling it towards democracy, Tony Blair said yesterday.
Tony Blair, aided by Sir Bobby Robson, plays football in China
At the end of a two-day stay in Beijing, the Prime Minister said he had been assured by his hosts that "political development" would follow China's emergence as an economic superpower.
Mr Blair also said that China's leaders had been much more willing to discuss democracy and human rights than on his two previous visits in 1998 and 2003.
Human rights groups have regularly criticised the Government for its reluctance to confront the Chinese over issues such as Tibet and the treatment of dissidents.
But Mr Blair, who took part in a football photo call in the interests of British-Chinese relations, said there was much to be gained from maintaining dialogue with Beijing.
He told a news conference that he had tried to explain to Wen Jaibao, the Chinese prime minister, why people were so worried about China becoming the second biggest economy in the world within 10 years.
"His answer to me was that China faces enormous challenges because you have got a relatively wealthy part of the country but many, many poor people. Their economic development has a long way to go.
"But he recognises that political development should accompany that. We will have to see how that goes." Mr Blair's spokesman was unable to say whether he had raised the question of Tibet, as regularly demanded by Free Tibet campaigners, or the case of the imprisoned journalist Ching Cheong.
Mr Ching, a British passport holder who is a Hong Kong correspondent for the Singapore Straits Times, was arrested while visiting China in April.
He has been accused of selling state secrets to Taiwan. Supporters say the real reason he was arrested is that he was trying to obtain copies of interviews given by Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese leader, purged for being too sympathetic to the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 and who died in January.
Mr Blair spent eight hours in talks with Mr Wen, the most reformist member of the Chinese leadership, and said that they had had a genuine conversation about progress towards freedom. In previous talks, Chinese leaders had read out what was on their brief and moved to another subject, said Mr Blair, but this time there was a "real sense of engagement".
Beijing understood that the fast development of the country was accompanied by "an unstoppable momentum aiming towards greater political freedom and progress towards human rights". But he added: "Whether it does happen or not, time will tell."
For the last 18 months the Chinese authorities have been staging a crackdown on political dissent.