LONDON– Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Sunday kicked off the first full day of a visit to Britain, as Beijing released high-profile human rights activist Hu Jia from prison.
Wen arrived late Saturday in the central city of Birmingham from Hungary, the first stop on his three-nation Europe tour, as news emerged that Hu, one of China's most prominent prisoners of conscience, was about to be released.
China is trying to use the trip to gain a greater foothold in Europe, but has faced fierce criticism from Western powers over its human rights record and in particular a recent crackdown on dissent.
The release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei last week was widely seen as an effort to defuse the tensions.
London has been among international critics, with Foreign Secretary William Hague repeatedly speaking out against Ai's detention and the crackdown against activists.
The British stage of Wen's trip is aimed at strengthening economic and political ties between London and Beijing, and he will hold talks with Prime Minister David Cameron and attend the annual UK-China Summit.
Around the time Wen arrived in Britain, China released Hu after he completed a sentence of more than three years for subversion and he returned to his home outside Beijing early Sunday morning, his wife said in a Twitter posting.
"On a sleepless night, Hu Jia arrived home at 2:30 am. Peaceful, very happy. Need to rest for awhile. Thanks to you all," Zeng Jinyan, also an activist, wrote on her Twitter account.
Hu, 37, was jailed in April 2008, just months before the Beijing Olympics, after angering the ruling Communist Party through years of bold and outspoken campaigning for civil rights, the environment, and AIDS sufferers.
His release came several days after Ai was freed on bail after nearly three months in police custody. His detention had drawn fierce international criticism.
British officials had raised the issue with their Chinese counterparts at the highest level.
Hague had given Ai's release only a cautious welcome, saying that "serious questions" remained about the circumstances of his detention and legal status.
"I urge the Chinese authorities to clarify the exact details of the charges against him as soon as possible," he said at the time of the release.
"I am also concerned by the cases of other activists, lawyers, journalists and bloggers detained in recent weeks, and call on the Chinese authorities to ensure they are treated in accordance with international human rights standards."
On Sunday, Wen will visit the MG car plant in the Longbridge area of Birmingham, which was for many years a symbol of British manufacturing dominance but is now owned by SAIC Group, China's largest automaker.
In a break from serious official duties, he will indulge his interest in Shakespeare with a visit to the bard's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he will be treated to a short performance.
His next stop is London, where he will on Monday hold talks with Prime Minister David Cameron and attend the UK-China Summit, an annual event aimed at boosting ties during which business deals will be announced.
The premier leaves Britain on Monday for Germany, the third stop on his tour.
It is Wen's second Europe tour in just nine months, highlighting a shift in China's interest towards investing in the continent after having ploughed money in recent years into Africa, Australia, Latin America and the United States.
Wen's tour comes amid an escalation in the eurozone debt crisis, centring again on Greece, which needs to push through new austerity measures next week to unlock crucial EU-IMF aid and stave off default.