Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures to British Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, February 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters/ Wu Hong

As has been aptly noted, if British Prime Minister Theresa May kept quiet during her recent visit to China about Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy activists and broader human-rights issues, she might have hoped the Chinese would also return the favor by keeping quiet about the fact she was keeping quiet.

Instead, on the final day of her three-day trip to the Communist-ruled country last week, the state-run Global Times hailed her for not challenging the Chinese leadership over these issues.

The editorial by the party-backed paper on February 2 then became a talking point in the British media. It appeared to attract greater attention than any other aspects of May’s first prime-ministerial visit to the Asian power, as many newspapers, including The GuardianThe Times and The Sun reported the comment, respectively headlining that China “commends,” “thanks” and “praises” Theresa May for “sidestepping” the issue of human rights.

Apparently embarrassed by the dubious praise, as reported by The Guardian and other UK publications, such as the Daily Express and London’s Evening Standard, British officials pushed back, insisting that the 61-year-old leader had indeed raised human rights and her concerns about Hong Kong in meetings with China’s two top leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Although the British officials didn’t elaborate, they reported that  Premier Li had said that during his meeting with May they “had an in-depth discussion [on] a wide range of issues,” including human rights, and a Downing Street statement also confirmed that May and Xi “discussed Hong Kong.”

What is true, however, is that May didn’t openly raise Beijing’s treatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and human rights in China. Judging by the triumphant reaction of the Global Times, her public silence on the topics pleased her hosts considerably.

In some respects, it could be seen as a huge victory for Beijing and that’s why it celebrated it. On her way to China, May had publicly pledged to raise the Hong Kong and human-rights issues with the Chinese leadership.

Ahead of her trip, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xinhua, the one-party state’s official news agency, implicitly warned that whether the UK could forge closer ties with the Asian giant would depend on her attitude.

In its editorial, headlined “Sino-UK partnership transcends media mudslinging over human rights,” the Global Times itself bluntly stated that, for Prime Minister May, “the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.” And it’s clear that by deciding to dodge Beijing’s poor human-rights record, she toed China’s line on the matter while in the country.

In fact, as the nationalist outlet boasted, not only May but also French President Emmanuel Macron ducked human-rights issues during his official tour of China last month.

However, in some other respects and by the Global Times’ own standards, May’s submission to the rising superpower shouldn’t be as big a deal as the publication suggests.

In a contemptuous editorial during a 2013 visit by May’s predecessor David Cameron, who had infuriated China by meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, the same paper derided the UK as “not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study.”

May’s China trip was primarily aimed at forging stronger economic and commercial ties with the world’s biggest market as Britain is preparing to exit from the European Union

The economic asymmetries between the two countries are now much bigger than they were five years ago. According to the International Monetary Fund’s estimations, in 2013, China’s gross domestic product was $9.469 trillion and that of the UK was $2.86 trillion. In 2017, the former increased to $11.938 trillion while the latter decreased to $2.565 trillion.

What’s more, May’s China trip was primarily aimed at forging stronger economic and commercial ties with the world’s biggest market as Britain is preparing to exit from the European Union. She also came to the Asian giant at a time when her leadership as well as the Conservative Party and the country she is leading have faced many huge challenges due to Brexit.

Given such realities, perhaps coupled with her awareness of the 18-month diplomatic freeze imposed by Beijing after Cameron’s encounter with Tibet’s spiritual leader six years ago, May was probably wise to be “pragmatic” and not anger her hosts.

It’s thus unsurprising that such a weakened leader of such “an old [and irrelevant] European country” decided to adopt such a submissive posture during a primarily trade-focused trip to the rising superpower, with which her country desperately needs to foster closer economic and commercial cooperation because of its voters’ decision to sever decades-long ties with its closest and biggest trading partner, the EU.

However, the British prime minister’s adherence to Beijing’s authoritarian line and the Global Times’ praise of it reveal as much about China’s strength as its weak and ugly side.

For all its economic advancement, the Communist country has been regressing politically, especially under Xi Jinping’s rule. In terms of democracy and freedom, the world’s most populous country fares very badly. But thanks to its economic success, Beijing is proactively exporting its authoritarianism.

Perhaps US President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy is right to state that “China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda.”

All of this is increasingly making public opinion, especially in Western countries, more suspicious and critical of Beijing. A study recently published by two German institutes warns that China is posing “a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests.”

Judging by the outcomes of their respective China trips, both the French and British leaders adopted a transactional approach vis-à-vis Beijing. They traveled to the world’s second-biggest economy and most powerful authoritarian state because of economic interests, rather than because of shared values.

Moreover, while May and Macron adhered to Beijing’s line with regard to human rights, they refused to kowtow to it in some other key areas. Notable among these was their refusal to endorse publicly and wholeheartedly the grand Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s signature project.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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