When Theresa May met Xi Jinping in the grand surroundings of his State Guesthouse this week, the Chinese President knew that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.
“For me, and Shakespeare,” he said, “‘What’s past is prologue’.” The quote from The Tempest is hardly famous, but for Xi it required little translation: all previous contact between the UK and China had been a mere scene-setter for the serious business ahead.
It was music to May’s ears, not least as she wants to project an image of a Prime Minister selling ‘global Britain’ abroad, preparing the stage for the next major act in the UK’s history: Brexit.
But despite the warm welcome for ‘Auntie May’ during her three-day tour, and despite talk of £9bn in trade deals ‘signed’, her critics back home may be left feeling this was all Much Ado About Nothing.
Even before the trip began, No10 was busy spinning the scale of the project ahead. It claimed the 50 businesses and organisations travelling with the PM to China amounted to “the largest” such overseas delegation “of this government”.
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It certainly was the largest for this government. But when David Cameron travelled to China in 2010 and 2012, he took a retinue of business leaders that dwarfed this week’s effort, packing a jumbo jet with famous names and brands.
The Department of International Trade even claimed that ’50 businesses’ were on the PM’s RAF Voyager plane. A closer look revealed that of those fifty individuals, just six were privately-owned firms, around 15 were publicly-owned corporations. The majority were sectoral trade bodies or universities.
Three years ago, when Xi visited the UK, Cameron also secured a whopping £40bn in contracts. Yet even the £9bn figure claimed by No10 for the May visit had a suspicious lack of detail.
Every PM wants to roll out big numbers on foreign trips, but in some cases it was difficult to tell what direct role May had played. One of the biggest ‘deals’ hailed was with Chinese retailer JD.com, yet its £2bn appeared to be based on a projected increase in UK-China sales that may have happened anyway.
Some of the business people on the PM’s plane privately complained they had been given such short notice that it had been difficult to arrange key meetings with counterparts in Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai.
Others said that the very presence of a high level political delegation, especially one with meetings with the Chinese President and premier, provided that little bit of extra incentive to get Chinese firms, state bodies and banks to sign on the dotted line of contracts this week.
The string of announcements that accompanied the visit was sometimes threadbare. We were told that China’s Terracotta Warriors were coming to Liverpool’s Tate Britain offshoot, only to discover that the news had been revealed weeks ago.
May seemed to unveil a new crackdown on the ivory trade (a key issue in China), but it emerged that the Government was simply publishing the results of a consultation process that showed the public backed tough action.
There was a flicker of excitement when No.10 suggested the ban on British beef, imposed after the 1990s BSE crisis, would be lifted. Yet it turned out that the two countries had merely agreed to discuss progress on the issue.
When May visited Wuhan, home to the world’s largest university, there were hopes she may say something about student visa changes, but instead there was an announcement about extending a maths teacher exchange programme that has been running for a few years.
Wuhan was the place where Chairman Mao pulled off his propaganda coup in the 1960s of swimming 16km of the Yangtze River in ‘record time’.
Former Tory Chairman May visited a scheme to see how tiny plastic particles are removed from the river, yet there was no big, eye-catching policy on joint projects to reduce plastic waste – which is meant to be one of her government’s priorities.
China contains five of the world’s ten most plastic-polluted rivers in the world, but May only managed to raise the issue in very general terms with President Xi. She did present him with a DVD box set of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, which was hugely popular with Chinese viewers, complete with personal message from Sir David Attenborough. Rather unusually, we were not told what gifts Xi gave May in return.
May appeared wary of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, a massive infrastructure project to link the country to Europe. However, some progress was made with a new U.K.-China “trade and investment review” which No. 10 said was a “first step” on the road to a much deeper economic partnership.
The partnership sounded like the first glimmer of a hint of a post-Brexit UK-China free trade deal, clearly one of the big prizes May and any UK PM would want to get from Beijing. No10, in tune with the ‘prologue’ approach, hinted this was a ‘first step’ to something bigger at a later date.
And the true measure of this trip over time will not be in one-off ‘deals’ but in the increase in overall bilateral trade between the two countries. It went up by 6% last year and now stands at nearly £60bn annually.
Some of the real business was done at behind-the-scenes ‘round table’ meetings between British and Chinese counterparts. One insider said that the financial services version featured some invaluable discussion of why China is keen to secure a special deal with the UK after Brexit, ensuring access to City of London funds and expertise not available elsewhere, in Europe or the US.
Publicly, the policy statements on both sides were more vague. Yet on Brexit itself, her supporters believe that a lack of detail remains a positive for May, despite the fears of some of her more impatient MPs that she is failing to show a clear lead.
Brussels warned again this week that the UK’s lack of a vision for the precise kind of Brexit it wants risked undermining the whole project.
Tory backbencher Richard Graham, a China expert who flew out separately to join the visit, countered that the PM was wise to keep her options open. She had managed to keep on board all parts of her party until she was ready to announce firmer detail, he said. “Constructive ambiguity is a skilful policy and the Prime Minister is deploying it superbly.”
On Friday morning, May certainly ducked several questions in her round of broadcast interviews with the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Not a single new policy or position emerged from her lips, and as she trotted out her mantra that she wanted a ‘new chapter’ relations between Britain and China, President Xi’s promised “golden era” sounded like a golden earache.
May is, of course, infamous for her fear of going off-script. After a round of similarly news-free broadcast clips on a previous trip to Japan, SkyNews infuriated Downing Street by running a headline ‘Theresa May Says Absolutely Nothing At All’.
When she arrived at the new UK-China Business Forum in Shanghai, she delivered another sleep-inducing speech, despite being introduced by Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, China’s answer to Amazon.
In a delicious irony, the British promotional video that followed her speech featured cute English children talking about the merits of robots. “In the future, I think robots will do quite a lot of things,” one said.
On which note, one source in China claimed that the PM’s planning team had sent an instruction to some media ahead of this visit, warning them not to shoot any footage of May standing “next to robots”. No.10 ridiculed the claim when it was put to them by HuffPost UK.
May’s defenders will point out that doing business with China, let alone paving the way for a free trade deal, is never going to be a simple process. The PM saw for herself the sheer scale of the country’s economy and challenges during her brief stay.
One headline in a local newspaper ran a headline that 12.9 million Chinese people had been lifted out of poverty by its extraordinary state capitalism model. But that still left 70 million people – more than the entire population of the UK – living below the poverty line.
At midnight on Thursday, Beijing also introduced yet another censorship crackdown, making it illegal to use a ‘VPN’ to circumvent the ‘Great Chinese Firewall’ that bars access to Google, gmail, Twitter and many other potentially difficult websites.
As a precaution before the trip, No.10 staff had all been issued with ‘burner’ phones. They were glad to be free of the need to constantly check emails or Twitter, but the measures taken to avoid being snooped on by China’s ever-increasingly sophisticated cyber security agents spoke for themselves.
Some news from London did filter through, not least Brexit minister Steve Baker’s suggestion that the civil service wanted to sabotage the UK’s departure from the EU.
And just before take-off from Shanghai airport on Friday lunchtime, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox had also committed an act of news, making clear to Bloomberg TV that no kind of customs union with Europe would be consistent with an ‘independent’ trade policy.
Crucially, 5,700 miles away in London, No.10′s spokesman said that the PM herself had an ‘open mind’ on the issue. Fox was ‘speaking for the Government’.
Fox, who was the only minister to travel with the PM on the trip, had got to the heart of this China odyssey. His message was that Britain’s future had to lie with new business opportunities in the rapidly growing parts of the world economy.
He was certainly a big hit with the British business people on the RAF plane on its homeward bound journey. As the alcohol flowed, Fox was surrounded by entrepreneurs who wanted a selfie with him. One spotted the ‘Emergency Exit’ sign, joked about Brexit, and took a snap on their smartphone.
Another businessman, not a Conservative, had nothing but praise for Fox. “That bloke is brilliant, the work he does for British business. I used to ring up the Department for Business and no one would answer the phone. Now we have a new department and they are superb.”
But the real surprise for May’s critics came when she decided on an impromptu tour of the plane home. Walking with husband Philip up the aisle, she came through the curtain from business class to economy and was greeted with spontaneous applause from the business people seated before her.
The man who led the clapping was Stuart Garner, CEO of Norton motorcycles. Based in Donnington Hall, Derby, he has revived the famous marque by putting his product in the latest James Bond film and selling in new markets overseas. On this trip, he secured multi-million pound licensing deals with Chinese engine manufacturers who want to meet EU emissions targets.
“She’s just fantastic,” Garner said of May. “The media doesn’t get to see what she’s really like. And as for Brexit, it won’t be an issue in a few years’ time. Trade with countries like China will make sure of that.”
By the time the Prime Minister returned to her mini-office at the front of the Voyager, thoughts of leadership plots back in the UK may have been far away.
The PM could even have been forgiven for wanting to quote another line from Shakespeare’s Tempest, when one character declares “’Twas a sweet marriage, and we prosper well in our return.”
Whether a restless Tory party allows her to prosper as its leader is the next plot twist for the Westminster stage.