MANCHESTER (England) /BEIJING • Chinese President Xi Jinping has told Britain he wants to see a united European Union, in his most direct comments on Britain's relationship with Europe before the country's EU membership referendum.
Mr Xi told Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain was an "important member of the EU" as he blew the final whistle on his state visit yesterday with a day out at the English Premier League leaders Manchester City.
The EU remark was a rare mention of another country's planned vote by China, which does not like to interfere in internal affairs. But Beijing has been worried about the implications of free trade-supporting Britain leaving the EU, and of any weakening of a grouping which it views as a vital counterbalance to the United States, diplomats say.
Cameron aides, on the other hand, said the EU "wasn't a huge part of their discussion" and instead were keen to steer attention to the large-scale investment Britain secured from China.
Mr Xi visited the northern city yesterday not just to pose for selfies with City players and meet former stars from their rivals Manchester United, but also to seal £24 billion (S$51 billion) in deals to help spur the creation of a "northern powerhouse".
The Chinese leader arrived in Manchester to screams of delight from hundreds of supporters who were provided with "I love China" banners and flags. Britain is courting Chinese investment in its north as part of plans to regenerate the region, where development has lagged behind the more prosperous south-east.
As part of that, Hainan Airlines was to announce the first direct flights between Manchester and China, a deal which could boost the city's economy by £50 million.
Mr Xi also visited an academy run by Manchester City, where he met former City players Patrick Vieira and Mike Summerbee, and watched a training session.
Said to be a fan of rival Manchester United, he also met its former captain, Gary Neville.
The two leaders also toured the National Football Museum, which houses artefacts, including a ball used in the final of the inaugural 1930 World Cup. Mr Xi inducted former City player Sun Jihai into the museum's Hall of Fame. Sun was the first Chinese player to score in the Premier League.
During his visit, Britain laid on its highest level of diplomatic charm for the Chinese delegation, including a stay at Buckingham Palace and a state banquet with Queen Elizabeth. But critics say Mr Cameron did little to persuade Beijing to stop selling cheap steel, which has hurt Britain's struggling steel industry, and turned a blind eye to China's human rights record.
Prominent Chinese dissidents accused British police of being heavy-handed after an exiled Chinese democracy activist and two Tibetan women were arrested at a protest during the visit.
The Prime Minister said the visit has already sealed almost £40 billion in business deals, including the financing of nuclear power stations which critics say is exposing sensitive industries to Chinese control.
But Finance Minister George Osborne said the visit had secured Britain's place as "China's strongest partner in the West", a position that enabled officials to raise "difficult issues".
Mr Xi's diplomatic visits overseas also give clues about his passions, as the South China Morning Post noted. And, while in London, he revealed his love for the works of William Shakespeare.
Mr Xi revealed that as a teenager, he searched them out, and said: "I read A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant Of Venice, Twelfth Night, Romeo And Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE