Did Theresa May raise human rights with China during her visit to Beijing this week or not? The Chinese press has praised her for not mentioning the most neuralgic issue between China and all visiting officials. Downing Street sources, however, stated flatly that Mrs May raised the issue with both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. The Global Times, a voice of the Chinese Communist Party, said the ‘Sino-UK partnership transcends media mudslinging over human rights…May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip’. It contended, too, ‘while the government is responsible for public well-being, the media tends to whip up sensations while disregarding sound international relations. Some European media pressed May and Macron on human rights, but the two leaders sidestepped the topic on their China trip. This shows that the Sino-European relationship has, to a large degree, extricated itself from the impact of radical public opinion.’
Before she set off for China, May said she would raise human rights in China with specific reference to Beijing’s pressure on Hong Kong.
Hong Kong human rights spokesmen urged to do just that. Within a few hours of the Communist party praising May for having ducked the human rights issue, Downing Street sources insisted she did. Britain’s record on this matter is indeed one of ducking it. In 1991, I was present in Beijing when John Major insisted to reporters that, in a meeting with Premier Li Peng, he had ‘banged the table’ on human rights and handed over a list of political prisoners. Douglas Hurd, then-foreign secretary, later emphasised to me that this had happened. However, an official on the British side at the meeting told me that the human rights issue had not been mentioned, but that Major had hoped for press reports that he had spoken out on the matter.
It is impossible to reconcile the contradictory statements of what May did or didn’t say. The British record on this matter is not reassuring. But Mrs May has not yet been caught out on a matter as significant as this.