The Prime Minister has said she intends to raise concerns about potential human rights violations in Hong Kong with President XI Jinping when she meets him on her critical trade mission to China.
Theresa May said that while the President had previously told her he is committed to the “one country, two systems” approach to the territory, she would speak with him again amid fresh concerns in the UK.
It will be a difficult conversation for Ms May, given she is travelling to Beijing seeking business and in hope of eventually securing an all important post-Brexit trade deal with China.
She has also so far held back from giving a full-throated endorsement to China’s huge ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which is seeing the country invest vast sums of cash to construct infrastructure across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Ahead of her trip, Ms May received a letter from former Hong Kong governor Lord Patten highlighting “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy which the people were promised” by China.
Speaking to reporters on the plane to her first stop in China, the city of Wuhan, Ms May was asked whether she would raise concerns with the country’s powerful leader.
She said: “I will be raising both human rights and the issue of Hong Kong.
“We believe that the future of Hong Kong, that ‘one country, two systems’ future is important. We are committed to that.
“I’ve raised this in the past with President Xi and he’s shown commitment to that, but I will continue to raise it with him. I think that’s part of the relationship, it’s on a basis where we are able to do that.”
Ms May also declined to give full backing to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with some fearing that the vast investment plan is being used to increase and embed China’s international influence in Europe and Asia.
While acknowledging that the BRI has potential to be “hugely significant” and to “have opportunities for businesses outside China”, she went on: “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.”
But anything Ms May says to President Xi will be tempered by her need to secure greater trade from China – where the consumer market alone is worth over £3.3tn – as the UK departs the European Union.
British exports are up 60 per cent since 2010 and China is expected to be one of the UK's biggest foreign investors by 2020.
Ms May has already announced some £550m worth of deals in the education sector, with more expected on her three-day visit.
She said: “As you know we're already starting discussions with a number of countries around trade deals. One of the other things we're doing with a number of countries is actually talking about how we can enhance trade now, even before we get a trade agreement.
“China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with. But I think that there is more we can be doing in the interim…in terms of looking at potential barriers to trade and the opening up of markets.”
She added: “Also, obviously we also have significant Chinese investment into the United Kingdom.”
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