David Cameron on Wednesday hit back at critics who claimed he should not be cosying up to China, insisting he could strike big business deals with Beijing and still raise awkward questions on human rights and other issues.
The prime minister and Chinese president Xi Jinping confirmed the signing of a deal in which China will help build a new generation of British nuclear power stations, one of a series of agreements between the two sides that Downing Street claimed would be worth “close to £40bn”.
But at a perfunctory press conference in Downing Street — Mr Cameron and Mr Xi took only two questions — the prime minister insisted he had delivered some tough messages to the Chinese president behind closed doors.
Mr Cameron, who scrawled “Shee” in black felt tip pen on his notes to help him pronounce his guest’s name, said he raised human rights. Aides refused to say precisely what issues they had discussed.
Mr Cameron said he had also discussed “the global supply of steel and how to tackle it”, a reference to allegations of Chinese dumping on world markets, which has been blamed for the collapse of the UK steel industry.
Facing criticisms that Britain was acting as a supplicant to China — Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s former policy chief, claimed the behaviour was “humiliating” — Mr Cameron robustly defended his policy.
“I totally reject the idea you either have a conversation about human rights and steel or you have a strong relationship with China,” he said. “You can have both, indeed you must have both.”
Mr Xi, challenged by the BBC on Beijing’s “very troubling” record on human rights on the second day of his four-day state visit, said China had found “a path of human rights development that is suitable for Chinese conditions”.
The deal for China to take a one-third stake in Hinkley Point C nuclear power station was the commercial centrepiece of Mr Xi’s lavish state visit, although the agreement has been criticised on cost and security grounds.
Later the Chinese president travelled to the City of London to set out how China intends to expand the role of the UK as the most important offshore renminbi financial centre outside Hong Kong.
Mr Cameron said his talks with Mr Xi had been wide ranging, covering trade, climate change and co-operation in fighting “instability and extremism”.
China has been waging a campaign against “extremist” Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of western China, strongly criticised by human rights bodies. Mr Xi has been anxious to place its crackdown in the context of the fight against global Islamist extremism.
Mr Cameron and Mr Xi also signed an agreement to refrain from cyber espionage and the theft of corporate secrets — similar to the deal agreed by the Chinese president with the US on a visit to Washington last month.
But both the US and Britain will be looking for progress on the ground in the halting of cyber attacks, rather than grand diplomatic declarations.