On the same day that the BBC underlined China’s apparent excitement over Theresa May’s visit, with a video featuring Chinese students praising the UK, Chinese social media was arguably more enthusiastic about the “super blue blood moon” . On Wednesday night China’s popular social media platform WeChat was awash with user postings of moon pictures.
Most Chinese people are unlikely to know that the British prime minister is in their country. “I don’t think anyone is paying attention to that,” a Chinese news assistant for a European news agency replied, laughing, when I asked her about May’s visit.
As much as the visit has made headlines in the Chinese media, which is mostly state-sponsored, it was her visit to Wuhan that created more buzz, and for a much less well-known female figure. Jiang Shuying, or Maggie Jiang, a Chinese TV actress who holds a masters from the University of East Anglia, was propelled to social media stardom as she showed the prime minister around Wuhan University. Both news and social media posts about the visit were quick to note the actress’s polished beauty and how good her English was.
There is some media intrigue with May herself, in particular her family life – as you would expect from a deeply patriarchal society where only one woman sits in the 25-strong top-level politburo. Media noted that May’s visit was the first time she had been accompanied by her husband on an official visit abroad, the narrative being “the quiet man behind a strong woman”. The fact that they have no children was mentioned – the expected explanation for many Chinese people as to how a woman could arrive at such professional distinction.
Foreign female political figures are often portrayed as hard bitten – and like Angela Merkel, May has been referred to as an “iron lady”. But this image was tweaked in a state media interview, who suggested the title of “Auntie May” in an interview with her before her visit. As with “Uncle Xi” (President Xi Jinping) and “Mama Peng” (the first lady, Peng Liyuan), the term politely labels May as an amenable and reliable member of the leader’s extended, international family. It’s a clever tactic, but politeness and even flattery is the Chinese way, rooted in its three classical Confucian texts that set out how to behave in public and private.
There is no reason China shouldn’t view the UK positively, given that British backing into critical government-led projects such as the new Xiong’an economic zone to the south-west of Beijing. David Cameron first talked of a “golden era” in Sino-UK relations two years ago, evoking China’s own “golden age”: a reference to the prosperous Tang dynasty and thriving trade along the Silk Road. The term has been rejigged: it is now the harvesting of “golden fruits” under May.
But the enthusiasm may be less glowing than the British side wants to believe. It’s telling perhaps that Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the UK, wrote in an article in the Telegraph this week that: “Both China and the UK now stand at the entrance to a new era.” Surely this unique relationship is not still hovering at the doorway?
China has more in common culturally with the UK than any other European country, and far more than with the US. Ancient history is an important rhetorical device in contemporary China and Xi’s overall political narrative, and the UK’s “stable history” gives it symbolic credibility as a global ally that is experienced in “investment, security, green finance”, as China News wrote.
However, the way China sees Britain is not quite the same as at the end of 2013, when George Osborne and Boris Johnson first touted a “special relationship”, going to Beijing to discuss trade. Back then, China also saw the UK as a powerful extension of Europe.
With Brexit, it realises the need to court the rest of the continent, for which read France and Germany, more directly. For the time being, the importance of Britain must be weighed against the bigger investment China is trying to make in the EU, which it views as a single entity. May’s visit comes hot on the heels of Emmanual Macron’s a few weeks ago.
On the positive side, you could argue that Brexit may grant China more flexibility in trading with the UK, and the depreciation of the pound attracts more investment. For China’s booming middle class, in particular, the devaluing of the pound has been delightful, allowing more families to consider sending their children to study in the UK, not to mention the shopping on Oxford Street, and at Bicester village.
But given that Europe is particularly important in the Belt and Road initiative, Xi’s flagship project, China’s focus will increasingly be there. There are also niggling reservations over May after delays in the approval of the controversial Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, in which China has a one-third stake.
Overall, the UK remains an ally that provides valuable investment opportunities, as well as a country admired by China for its strong political institutions, and centuries-long record of global influence.
While there’s no sign of the lavish state reception that greeted Donald Trump in the Forbidden City, the UK can continue to curry favour by supporting the Belt and Road project, and may eventually taste the nectar of those “golden fruits”. If nothing else, loyal family member “Auntie May” – unlike the “stealthy” Trump who flips on China all the time – is unlikely to end up doing anything unexpected.
By Yuan Ren