When Theresa May headed to China this past week, it was widely seen as a chance for the British prime minister to bolster her country's position on the world stage amid a period of difficult negotiations to leave the European Union and a faltering relationship with the United States, Britain's chief ally.
May seemed in for a warm welcome, with Chinese social media users dubbing her “auntie.” But despite the announcement of business deals worth more than $13 billion and talk of a “golden era” in China, there was little fanfare for May when she returned home on Friday. Instead, she found herself criticized in the British media for failing to push back on Beijing's human rights abuses — while being praised in Chinese state media for the very same thing.
The English-language edition of Chinese state tabloid the Global Times praised May for being “pragmatic” about China and ignoring the Western media outlets who “keep pestering May to criticize Beijing.” The editorial also criticism “certain democracy activists in Hong Kong” for putting pressure on the British leader.
“The media tends to whip up sensations while disregarding sound international relations,” the Global Times said, before praising both May and French President Emmanuel Macron for “sidestepping” human rights on their trips to China. “This shows that the Sino-European relationship has, to a large degree, extricated itself from the impact of radical public opinion.”
May had told reporters she would raise human rights and issues surrounding the future of Hong Kong, a former British colony, during her trip. However, she did not raise the issue publicly while appearing in China between Wednesday and Friday.
British officials told the Guardian that May brought up the issues in private during meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Regardless, the lack of public discussion quickly lead to criticism from a variety of sources across the political spectrum in Britain.
“China is tightening its high-tech tyranny,” said an editorial in the right-wing Telegraph newspaper. “Theresa May should not be rushing to please it.” The left-wing Guardian newspaper, meanwhile, compared the stern and very public human rights criticism of former prime minister John Major during his own trip to Beijing in 1991 with May's muted tones.
“Mrs May has not yet been caught out on a matter as significant as this,” wrote Jonathan Mirsky, a British expert on Asia, for the New Statesman. And there was also criticism of May from Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong, who had previously written to ask May to push Beijing on his city's fate.
The situation shows May is in a tight spot when it comes to dealing with China and other authoritarian regimes. In a post-Brexit world, British leaders may need be wary of angering powerful trading partners. A secret analysis undertaken by May's own government and recently leaked to BuzzFeed had found that under all possible scenarios, leaving the E.U. would cause serious harm to the country's economic growth.
The purpose of May's trip to China was not to criticize the country, but to lay the groundwork for a free-trade deal that could soften the blow of leaving the E.U. But Britain's uncertain economic future means it is negotiating from a weak position. May's own domestic political problems likely hurt her standing in China.
Channel 4's political editor, Gary Gibbon, noticed the contrast in her position and Xi's. “A personality cult leader with unchallenged power meets a leader who has lost her majority, her top aides, her deputy, her ability to reshuffle and much more besides in one year flat,” Gibbon wrote.
Until the trip, May had pushed a far less pro-business policy than her predecessor, David Cameron. In particular, her government had been extremely cautious about signaling any support for China's enormous overseas infrastructure project, generally known as the Belt and Road initiative (of which Cameron is now linked to, through a position at an investment fund). But with little leverage, human rights activists fear she could end up as auntie to Beijing's big brother.
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