WUHAN, CHINA – U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in China seeking to balance her desire to build a powerful post-Brexit trade relationship with a clutch of political concerns.
At the start of a three-day trade mission, May said she would raise the sensitive topics of China’s human rights record and Hong Kong democracy in talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Her reluctance to formally endorse Xi’s global Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative also risks impeding her pursuit of more robust ties.
“China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with,” May told reporters on board her flight from London to Wuhan, which landed on Wednesday. The nature of the relationship between the two countries means she can still discuss “those issues” of concern, she said. “I will be raising both human rights and the issue of Hong Kong.”
May’s business mission to China is meant to demonstrate her government’s intent to forge a global trade policy after leaving the European Union next year. While the U.K. can’t sign any deals outside the EU until it leaves the bloc — and would be unable to implement them until at least 2021 — she is hoping to strike now, while Xi works to establish himself as a leading defender of globalization.
May’s delegation — which includes 50 business leaders, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a clutch of officials and her husband — are optimistic about progress toward formal trade talks.
“A number of the businesses here are looking to confirm some deals in China, which will be good for the U.K. economy,” May said. “There’s more that we can be doing in the interim, right now, in terms of looking at potential barriers to trade and the opening up of markets.”
Asked why she wouldn’t formally join the Belt and Road initiative, May struck a diplomatic tone, saying the plan had the “potential to be a hugely significant investment and to have a huge, significant impact” but added a caveat: “What I would like to see is ensuring that we have transparency and international standards being adhered to — and I will be discussing that with my Chinese interlocutors.”
There were more cautionary words on China’s human rights record and concerns over democracy in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which the U.K. returned in 1997 on a promise to maintain the city’s “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. On Monday, the European Union warned that Hong Kong risked diminishing its “international reputation as a free and open society” after banning a prodemocracy activist from running for the city’s legislature.
“We believe that the future of Hong Kong — that ‘one country, two systems’ future — is important,” May said. “We are committed to that. I’ve raised this in the past with President Xi, and he’s shown commitment to that. And I will continue to raise it.”
Ahead of her arrival in China, May also spoke on domestic politics, defying critics calling for her to resign, saying she is not a quitter and has a long-term job to do: delivering Brexit and domestic reform.
May has come under fire in recent days from several factions within her party. She has been accused by euroskeptics of watering down Brexit, by pro-EU lawmakers of risking Britain’s economy, and by others who say her domestic agenda is too timid.
“I’ve said to you before, I’m not a quitter and there is a long-term job to be done,” she said when asked about the recent criticism of her leadership and reports of a potential attempt to oust her. “That job is about getting the best Brexit deal, about ensuring that we take back control of our money, our laws, our borders, that we can sign trade deals around the rest of the world. But it is also about our domestic agenda.”
Media reports have said the number of ‘no confidence’ letters submitted by lawmakers from May’s party is nearing the threshold that would trigger a leadership contest. The committee that holds the letters does not comment on the actual number.
May’s future as leader of the ruling Conservative Party has been subject to heightened speculation after she gambled last year on a snap election, which went badly wrong and cost her party its majority in Parliament.
During a similar trade-focused visit to Japan last year, May first used the “I’m not a quitter” phrase, vowing to fight the next British election as leader in 2022.
Since then the pressure has been amplified by gaffes, scandals and a growing concern among some that constant infighting over Brexit was drowning out attempts to win back the voters.
Responding to one of more than 10 questions about her leadership during a 25-minute briefing, May defended her record by singling out housing, education and employment rates as areas where her government has made progress.
But, she acknowledged a need to make sure the messages are better heard by voters and her own party.
“Are you asking me is there more for us to do, talk to people about, more generally about what we are achieving and what we are doing? … Yes,” she said. “There is always more for us to be able to do to talk to people about what we’re achieving.”
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