In an editorial on Friday, the third and final day of May’s tour, the Global Times newspaper said the prime minister had wisely “sidestepped” such issues as she sought “pragmatic collaboration” between Britain and the world’s number two economy.
“Some western media outlets keep pestering May to criticise Beijing in an attempt to showcase that the UK has withstood pressure from China and the west has consolidated its commanding position over the country in politics,” the Communist party-run tabloid claimed in its English-language edition.
“Certain democracy activists in Hong Kong also intervened,” the nationalist newspaper added, pointing to an article in the Guardian on Wednesday in which Joshua Wong urged May to challenge Beijing’s “relentless crackdown” on the former British colony.
However, the Global Times congratulated May for turning a deaf ear to such calls, which it attributed to “radical public opinion”.
“May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip … For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.”
The Global Times’ Chinese-language edition agreed western media “mudslinging” was an exercise in futility. “Nothing can stop China-UK cooperation: noise and nagging will be carried away by the wind,” it said.
As she flew out to China on Tuesday, May pledged to raise Hong Kong and human rights with Chinese leaders. However, at a press conference with her host, Premier Li Keqiang, on Wednesday she mentioned neither. In fact Li made the only reference to human rights, which he said had been discussed as part of a wider conversation about topics including intellectual property rights and UK-China trade.
A spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, appeared to approve of May’s decision not to publicly raise the topics, telling reporters: “You must have felt the strong and positive willingness on the British side to enhance all-around cooperation with China.”
But Downing Street officials pushed back on the characterisation of May in Global Times, saying the prime minister had raised human rights and her concerns about Hong Kong in meetings with President Xi and Premier Li.
A UK government official said May had brought up specific cases of concern in Hong Kong, but declined to go into details.
Cui Hongjian, the head of the European studies department at the China Institute of International Studies, said May was in an unenviable bind as she struggled to please both western public opinion and Beijing. “Actually, I feel sympathy for Theresa May.”