The British prime minister’s trip to China has seen £9 billion’s worth of trade deals signed but will the real legacy be “Auntie” May’s appeal to China’s next generation?
It’s rare a world leader sees a trade mission to an emerging superpower as a welcome respite. However, one could forgive Theresa May for such sentiment given the cabinet infighting over Brexit and uncertainty over her own hold on power. The prime minister travelled to China with designs on promoting her country’s post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain”, and reassuring Chinese leaders that the UK would remain open for business after extricating itself from the EU.
However, as a result of Brexit or not, there remains a sense that China-UK relations are yet to reach the heights they had under the Cameron administration, when the Chinese leadership effusively spoke of bilateral ties entering a “Golden Era”. Along with George Osborne, the former PM judiciously ignored contentious issues such as democracy, human rights and the future of Hong Kong, as the UK aggressively courted Chinese investment, joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and agreed a deal that would see heavy Chinese involvement in the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.
Under Theresa May, China-UK ties have not been quite so chummy, with the new PM risking putting Chinese noses out of joint by halting the Hinkley Point programme in order to carry out an evaluation on the safety and security of British interests. And while May’s visit to the Middle Kingdom sees her and Chinese president Xi Jinping signing off on a raft of bilateral deals worth approximately £9 billion, the prime minister notably passed up the opportunity to sign a memorandum of understanding giving the UK’s official endorsement to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The awkwardly named plan is China’s vision for strengthening its economic ties and overseas influence but, as yet, no Western countries have given it their official backing, perhaps wary of endorsing a Chinese foreign policy seen as exploitative and neo-colonial.
Meanwhile, May has also faced calls from former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to raise concerns over Beijing heavy handedness in Hong Kong. Internationally, China’s increasing disregard for the ‘one state, two systems’ approach has been criticised as an erosion of rule of law in the former British territory. While May indicated before arriving in China that she was prepared to bring up the issue in talks with president Xi, it is unclear to what extent she has done so. Downing Street officials say this was done in private while Chinese state media commended the prime minister for “sidestepping” the issue.
It’s impossible to look past such silence without considering the elephant that is Chinese investment. Increasingly, Britain is courting this through school and university places. The UK currently plays host to some 100,000 Chinese university students who paying handsomely into a sector worth £20 billion to the British economy. This might go some way towards explaining May’s decision to begin her China jaunt in Wuhan: the central Chinese city is home to over 85 colleges and more than 1 million students.
Perhaps because of the UK’s educational connection with many of China’s students, May seems to have found a core group of unlikely allies in the form of the country’s net users. Chinese state media outlets have been eager to trumpet the warm reception given to May and her husband Philip. This has gone as far as to earn her the moniker “Auntie” May. A rather hackneyed video on the English-language website China Plus shows a selection of Chinese twenty-somethings praising May for not conforming to the stereotype of a female politician, as well as waxing lyrical about her dress sense and love of leopard print.
May’s surprising popularity may also in part be thanks to a deep-rooted appreciation of British popular culture, with television shows such as Sherlock, Doctor Who and Downton Abbey all enjoying a considerable following among China’s youth. Perhaps the PM might wish that opinion polls back home resembled the popularity of British box sets. Equally, if her appeal to China’s young does hold diplomatic value, she will hope to be around long enough to utilise her Auntie status.
James Hunt is a Beijing based journalist
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