What 'Aunty May' didn't say in China

When ‘Aunty May’ – the affectionate nickname given to British Prime Minister Theresa May by her Chinese fans – embarked on her first official visit to Beijing, trade talks came first and public discussion of human rights was absent. 

May ended her three-day trade mission in China on Friday with a £9.3 billion deal. When she flew out on Tuesday she had pledged (The Guardian) to discuss the future of Hong Kong’s democracy and human rights concerns with the mainland. Yet, while British government officials said that May raised the topics in private with China’s President Xi Jinping, she barely mentioned them in public.

Indeed, Chinese nationalist tabloid The Global Times praised May for “sidestepping” human rights, calling her visit a “pragmatic” one. “For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere,” said the paper.

Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy

On Wednesday, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian urging May to keep Britain’s promise to the island made in 1997: that it will never have to walk alone. “Theresa May must use her time with ‘Emperor Xi’ this week to stand up for Hong Kong’s rights, before it is too late,” said Wong.

During her visit, at most, China and the UK restated their commitment to the “One Country, Two Systems” deal in place since the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

  • Hong Kong’s youth has been protesting for more democracy since 2014 in what’s known as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ saying that the island’s autonomy, individual rights and freedoms are increasingly under threat from China.
  • Activists, including Wong and former legislator Nathan Law, were jailed in 2017 for their part in the protest. They were initially sentenced to community service but Hong Kong’s government deemed it too lenient.
  • Wong was jailed for a second time in 2018 (Guardian) after being on bail, again for his involvement in the 2014 protests.
  • Over the years, Hong Kong citizens, including publishers selling books critical of the Chinese mainland, have disappeared.

Human rights

Former British Prime Minister John Major, during his visit to Beijing in 1991, had no qualms about raising issues such as religion and the brutal suppression of 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square – one of the worst examples of human rights violations. May’s visit to China comes at a time when human rights in the mainland is at its lowest, according to Human Rights Watch (New York Times).

  • Human rights campaigners (Amnesty) say that China consistently targets activists and their family members with imprisonment or torture.
  • China’s treatment of the Uighur muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang has been internationally condemned. The government’s crackdown in the region includes banning Muslim civil servants from fasting and the Quran.
  • The country is notorious for its extreme internet censorship, known as the ‘Great Firewall,’ which blocks sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The Brexit barrier

Xi said the future of UK-China relations is to be ushered into what he called a “golden era.” May, meanwhile, is trying to establish the UK as a global trading nation after the 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

“Theresa May obviously is looking for China to give her some sort of Brexit get-out-of-jail-free card,” said author and China expert Fraser Howie to The Guardian. “[But] I don’t think Beijing has to offer anything, frankly, because they have all the cards. They are in a strong position. Britain has absolutely zero leverage over China.”

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