Theresa May faced embarrassment on the final day of her trip to China after being praised by state-run media for having “side-stepped” the issue of human rights.
Communist party mouthpiece The Global Times claimed that during her main meeting with President Xi Jinping, the Prime Minister had ducked controversy over Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy activists.
The dubious distinction of winning praise from state-run Chinese media was the flip-side of May’s warm welcome during her three-day tour, which has focused on building trade links before and after Brexit.
The Beijing-based newspaper claimed that in her meeting the MP had sought to “expand pragmatic collaboration with the country so as to pave the way for future trade and investment deals”.
In an article headlined ’Sino-UK partnership transcends media mudslinging over human rights”, it reported “May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip”.
“For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.”
The Global Times, which is an offshoot of the Workers’ Daily, also claimed – despite more cautious language from Downing Street – that May had signed up to Xi’s pet project, the 30-year ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure programme to link China with Europe.
“Like its participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Britain’s joining the Belt and Road initiative conforms to its national interests,” it said.
“While the government is responsible for public well-being, the media tends to whip up sensations while disregarding sound international relations.
“Some European media pressed May and Macron on human rights, but the two leaders sidestepped the topic on their China trip. This shows that the Sino-European relationship has, to a large degree, extricated itself from the impact of radical public opinion.”
In the official No.10 read-out of the Xi meeting, the UK’s only reference to Hong Kong was to say May and Xi had agreed that the ‘one country, two systems’ approach to the former British colony was appropriate.
There was no explicit reference to the wave of so-called ‘Umbrella’ protests of 2014 and the subsequent state backlash.
May had raised “human rights” during her meeting with Chinese premier Li Keqiang, but the Global Times suggested she had dodged the issue with the President.
The paper vented its spleen however towards Joshua Wong, a leading activist who this month was sentenced to three months in jail for his part in the Hong Kong protests.
Wong, who was this week nominated by US politicians for the Nobel Peace Prize, had upset Beijing with an article for the Guardian ahead of May’s visit, in which he pointed out the UK had promised to back the pro-democracy movement.
“Some Western media outlets keep pestering May to criticize Beijing in an attempt to showcase that the UK has withstood pressure from China and the West has consolidated its commanding position over the country in politics,” the Global Times wrote.
“In an open letter published Wednesday, Joshua Wong urged May to ‘stand up for Hong Kong’s rights,’ claiming that London vowed ‘Hong Kong will never have to walk alone’ in 1996.
“Taking advantage of Western forces to confront the central government is a long-term illusion of the radical Hong Kong opposition.”
Downing Street sources insisted that May had proactively raised human rights and Hong Kong in her meeting with the President. She had also raised a “specific case” in relation to Hong Kong.
The PM began her talks focusing on trade, before mentioning human rights, No.10 said.
Relations between the UK and China went into the deep freeze after David Cameron met Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama early in his premiership.
It took 18 months, and much diplomacy, before Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were allowed to get links back on track, and they made up for lost time by pushing trade deals and staging official visits.