The prime minister struck a more cautious note than her predecessors on her visit to Beijing. Her approach is sensible – but she has fewer cards in her hand
Where’s the beef? Anyone looking at Theresa May’s three-day visit to China would be wise to focus on the substance: such trips have a history of over-promising and under-delivering. Yet it’s a sign of the times that the government has interpreted the question so literally, flagging up among its headline successes the possible lifting of a BSE-era ban so that British beef imports can reach Chinese tables. Overall, the package of agreements came in far short of previous visits. Though the mantra of a “golden era” of Sino-British relations was repeated, the shine has come off for both sides.
The trip, supposedly a declaration of Britain’s trade potential in the age of Brexit, was inevitably overshadowed by her own party’s wranglings over that very subject and her leadership. The relationship’s immense asymmetry has never been quite so stark. On one side, Xi Jinping, “chairman of everything”: the most powerful leader in decades of an increasingly mighty and self-confident (some say hubristic) nation. On the other, Mrs May, an enfeebled figure representing – but for how much longer? – a nation weakened and isolated by its own folly. Though we are assured she raised human rights and the parlous political situation in Hong Kong in her meetings, she did not do so publicly. A party-run tabloid even commended her for sidestepping the topic.