China and the World

Travels with Auntie

A friendly reception for the British leader, despite a Belt and Road blip


Just call me Auntie Plum Blossom

Back in August 2016 WiC reported that British Prime Minister Theresa May had been bestowed with two nicknames by the Chinese: Auntie Plum Blossom and the Second Iron Lady.

The second was in tribute to Margaret Thatcher, although any association with the former leader faded rapidly last year in the aftermath of May’s disastrous decision to call a snap election in which she squandered her parliamentary majority.

At least her trip to China last week offered some respite from the domestic discord over Brexit and her hosts did their best to welcome her. Particularly charming was an interviewer from the state television channel. “A lot of Chinese people would affectionately call you, in Chinese, ‘Auntie May’ … you’re one of the members of the family. Do you like that?” she was asked.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much indeed. I’m honoured by that,” May responded, perhaps unaccustomed to such a friendly TV vibe.

Later Auntie tried a bit more bonding with her hosts, after being served Lapsang Souchong, a speciality tea from the Wuyi region (“We drink that!” she exclaimed, in unison with her husband).

May’s beverage of choice was a contrast to her predecessor David Cameron, who tried to score diplomatic points by taking Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, for a few pints at his local pub (see WiC349).

Before flying home her delegation duly announced £9 billion ($12.8 billion) in deals with the Chinese, plus the launch of a review body between the two governments on investment and trade.

Feted by Xi Jinping three years ago as a ‘golden era’ for commercial cooperation with Britain, trade ties with Beijing have taken on even greater importance for May’s government, to replace some of the business said to be at threat once Britain leaves the EU.

The optimists think that Britain is better positioned for a pick-up in profits than most of its European neighbours because it is more open to Chinese investment, and because it sells more of the kind of services that China will need as its economy matures from its manufacturing roots. But the pessimists pooh-pooh such chances, warning that any uptick in trade with higher-growth economies like China won’t come close to replacing the lost opportunities with Britain’s former partners in Europe.

And just like French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Beijing last month, she came in for criticism at home for avoiding public mention of China’s record on human rights.

Naturally, the state-run Global Times saw it differently, praising her for being “pragmatic” and ignoring those that “keep pestering May to criticise Beijing”.

“The media tends to whip up sensations while disregarding sound international relations,” the newspaper explained, highlighting that Macron had also sidestepped references to the topic.

May and her delegation did disappoint the Chinese, mind you, by refusing to provide a formal endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative – Xi Jinping’s signature policy. The suggestion in the British media was that thanks to her host’s awareness of May’s political weakness she was put under pressure to sign a memorandum publicly endorsing the programme. However, she demurred, much to their frustration.

That kind of caution is mirrored by disquiet among the Germans over the potential implications of Chinese investment in their own economy (see WiC396) and French president Macron also expressed reservations about Belt and Road last month, warning that it shouldn’t serve as a “one way street”.

May’s delegation picked up on a similar theme, urging that Belt and Road tendering processes were “fair and equitable”, according to an unnamed official who briefed the British press. All the same, May did her best with the diplomatic niceties, telling a press conference that Britain was a “natural partner” for the Belt and Road plan.

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