POLITICS
01/02/2018 19:40 GMT | Updated 02/02/2018 11:21 GMT

'Auntie' Theresa May Meets 'Uncle Xi' Jinping To Talk Chinese Tea And Trade

Time for a cuppa - and for post-Brexit economic cooperation?

She’s been greeted as “Auntie May”. He’s been dubbed “the First Gentleman”. And both of them just love drinking Chinese tea.

Beijing’s Communist Government certainly rolled out a carpet as red as the national flag on Thursday when Theresa May and her husband Philip were hosted by President Xi Jinping and his wife as part of their three-day tour.

The state-run media was keen to highlight the warm reception apparently given to the couple on the social media site Sina Weibo, with members of the public praising the PM’s “beautiful marriage” and her “very handsome” spouse.

One article published by the Xinhua News Agency (and shared on China’s equivalent of Twitter) said: “He is the man who loved her, supported her, and protected her, who has been there for 40 years.”

China Plus, the government-owned English language channel, carried uncannily uniform footage of young people heaping on the praise. One paid tribute to May for not being “a stereotype of a female politician” because she has “a good sense of fashion”, adding “she loves leopard print!” 

A particularly enthusiastic youngster listed the PM’s achievements, declaring “She made great efforts to solve terrorism, disputes with Northern Ireland, and Brexit.”

And all of the students revealed the British guest’s new nickname. “’Auntie May’ is a warm expression, just like we call Xi Jinping ‘Uncle Xi’ to show our fondness,” one said. “They all call her ‘Auntie May’, so do I,” said another. And in case we hadn’t got the message, yet another added: “It’s a friendly name we feel close to.”

After the Mays visited Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City, an interviewer from state-run Chinese television  - the aptly named CCTV - told the PM of her new moniker, pointing out it was unusual for foreign politicians to be granted such informality.

“A lot of Chinese people would affectionately call you, in Chinese, ‘Auntie May’,” the interviewer said. “That’s really a kind of a call for Chinese – you’re one of the members of the family. Do you like that?”

Clearly unused to such plaudits, a slightly surprised Prime Minister replied: “Oh thank you, thank very much indeed…I’m honoured by that. Thank you.” Her gratitude was so earnest, she named it thrice.

PA Wire/PA Images
Theresa May and husband Philip in the Forbidden City, Beijing

May then held an 80-minute bilateral meeting with President Xi in the Diaoyutai State Guest House.

The pair agreed a joint trade and investment review that British sources later suggested was the first step towards a post-Brexit deal, though the details were unclear. 

China’s markets would also be further opened to the UK, including in sectors such as beef (banned since the 1990s because of BSE fears), dairy and other agricultural goods.

The President himself couldn’t resist a bit of flattery for his guest, quoting Shakespeare to hail the growing links between China and the UK. “What’s past is prologue,” Xi said, citing The Tempest.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who attended both the meeting and a later dinner, had earlier pointed up the contrast between the positive image of his boss locally compared to her struggles with the Conservative party - and media - at home.

“They are looking at performance, they are looking to see what the UK is doing and they look at the prime minister in a different way than some of, let’s say, the internal tearoom discussions in the UK do,” he told the BBC. The pointed reference to the Commons Tea Room, where MPs plot and mutter about May’s leadership, didn’t need any translation.

Aptly enough, after the main business meeting was over, the Mays were treated to a traditional tea ceremony with the President and his wife Peng Liyuan.

As they were shown different varieties, the British media – starved of hard news about the trip and thirsty for anything resembling a story – spotted a new fact.

PA Wire/PA Images
President Xi Jinping, Theresa May, husband Philip and Peng Liyuan.

When Madame Peng pointed to Lapsang Souchong, a smokey speciality from the Wuyi region, both the PM and her husband said almost in unison: “We drink that!”

So, to add to her Waitrose-shopping habit, the Prime Minister is now a drinker of ‘posh’, loose-leaf tea. It’s not quite PG Tips or a ‘builders’’ brew, and for her critics it will be yet more proof that she’s out of touch with the average voter.

As the old Marxist joke goes, all proper tea is theft. But China is a unique mix of Mao and money these days.

The main thing was that Chairman May’s hosts were impressed. And after all, they are the ones with the big bucks and trade the UK is hoping to target after Brexit.