British Prime Minister Theresa May began a visit to China on Wednesday as she tries to strengthen her country’s global trade links before its contentious divorce with the European Union.

May arrived in the central industrial city of Wuhan and will be in the country until Friday in what the Chinese foreign ministry has called a “historic visit”.

She was heading to Beijing later Wednesday to meet  Premier Li Keqiang.

theresa may philip may
Photo: Philip May, via Twitter.

“My visit will intensify the ‘Golden Era’ in UK-China relations. The depth of our relationship means we can have frank discussions on all issues,” she said earlier this week.

May is battling criticism of her Brexit strategy back home. The House of Lords is scrutinising a key piece of legislation on quitting the EU as a leaked government report shows only economic downsides to leaving the bloc.

Britain’s ties with China have grown in importance as London contemplates its economic future after it officially leaves the EU in March 2019.

China “is delivering a new source of capital that –with the appropriate safeguards in place — can help us to invest in the future of our country,” she wrote in a column in the Financial Times.

“Together, that means a stronger British economy and more and better jobs for British workers.”

May is accompanied by her husband Philip and a delegation of 50 business leaders and organisation representatives, which her office said was “the largest” Britain has ever taken overseas.

May will also take the opportunity to discuss a wide range of other issues, including climate change and North Korea, but she was also under pressure to address the political situation in former colony Hong Kong and human rights abuses in mainland China.

China also has high expectations that London will endorse its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive infrastructure project aimed at reviving ancient Silk Road trade routes between the East and West and creating greater market access for Chinese companies.

“It’s natural that Belt and Road cooperation is an opportunity for the two sides to tap into our cooperation for win-win results,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Tuesday.

The British government, however, has been less sanguine about the project, with May’s spokesman saying that while the idea holds promise, it is “vital that BRI projects meet international standards”.

She will hold talks with President Xi Jinping on Thursday and finish her visit Friday in the eastern business hub of Shanghai.

Rights and Hong Kong 

Before her trip, the former British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, urged May to address concerns about the political situation in the semi-autonomous city, which London handed back to Beijing in 1997.

Chris Patten.
Chris Patten. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In a letter to May’s Downing Street office, Patten said Hong Kong was facing “increasing threats to the basic freedoms, human rights and autonomy” which its people were promised after the handover.

Human Rights Watch also urged the British leader to “get tough with China” on rights.

But business is the focus of her trip.

“The UK and China will not always see eye-to-eye,” she wrote in the Financial Times.

“But as partners committed to global free trade we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies.”

Britain has said it will leave the EU’s single market and customs union so that it can strike its own trade deals with countries outside the bloc, making China’s huge market an attractive target.

In preparation, a number of British officials have travelled to China in recent months. Trade minister Liam Fox discussed market access for British exports, including its key financial services sector.

Finance minister Philip Hammond worked on final preparations for a “stock connect” between the London and Shanghai exchanges, and mulled the possibility of linking their bond markets as well.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.