THE FIRST direct flight between the North of England and China will be unveiled today as Chinese President Xi Jinping completes his state visit with a trip to Manchester.
The Prime Minister will use the visit to claim China can “unlock the potential of the Northern Powerhouse”, the Government’s project to speed up growth in the North of England economy.
An agreement for a Chinese business to invest in the expansion of Thorpe Park, in Leeds, and the Sheffield Digital Campus - first announced during a trip to China by Chancellor George Osborne last month - will be confirmed today among a series of UK-China tie-ups.
David Cameron said: “We are committed to rebalancing our economy and building a Northern Powerhouse. China is a key trading partner for the UK and the partnerships being made today will see real investment going into the North.
“This is all part of this government’s plan to attract more investment and deliver economic growth to an area of huge potential.”
President Xi, reportedly a lifelong Manchester United fan, will be forced to tour Manchester City’s football academy.
However, former Manchester United star Gary Neville will be among a group of ex-players to meet President Xi alongside Denis Law, who played for both teams, Patrick Viera and Mike Summerbee.
He will take a tour of the National Football Museum Chinese and see football player Sun Jihai inducted into the museum’s Hall of Fame.
President Xi and Mr Cameron will also meet 200 business and council leaders from across the North.
Meanwhile, last night, it was claimed Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK has opened a “golden era” in UK-China relations, with the countries committing to build “a global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century”, according to a joint statement agreed by David Cameron with the Chinese president.
The statement was released by Downing Street as the Prime Minister prepared to host Mr Xi at his Buckinghamshire country retreat Chequers, where they will be joined for dinner by their wives Samantha Cameron and Peng Liyuan.
Downing Street was keeping tight-lipped over speculation that the PM would treat his guests to a visit to a local pub.
And it remained unclear whether Mr Cameron would wear his Royal British Legion poppy - purchased just hours earlier - during talks with Xi, after a spat during his 2010 visit to China when his hosts saw the remembrance emblem as an offensive reminder of the 19th century Opium Wars.
MPs demanded to know whether Mr Cameron would use the opportunity to raise specific concerns about China’s records on human rights, including the detention of lawyer Zhang Kai and other rights defenders.
Conservative backbencher Fiona Bruce called an urgent debate in the House of Commons to insist that the Government should place dialogue on human rights, freedom of thought, speech and assembly and rule of law “at the centre of this relationship”.
And Tory former minister Tim Loughton questioned why pro-Tibet and free speech protesters were “corralled” behind barriers while Chinese “state sponsored cheerleaders” were given prime position to watch Mr Xi being driven up the Mall to meet the Queen.
Mr Loughton said: “Why, in the UK where our democracy is built on the principle of free speech, were protesters in the Mall this week exercising their right to draw attention to human rights abuses in Tibet corralled behind barricades at the back while Chinese state sponsored cheerleaders were given Love China T-shirts and Chinese diplomatic bags and given prime position at the front?”
Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire told the Commons: “As the relationship between our two countries becomes ever closer, we are therefore in a better position to continually raise these matters particularly these extremely concerning individual cases.”
But the 1,500-word joint statement had little to say on the issue, noting only that the two sides “will further enhance political trust based on equality and mutual respect, and in that spirit recognise the importance each side attaches to its own political system, development path, core interests and major concerns”.
Instead, the document - drawn up after Wednesday’s talks between Xi and Mr Cameron at 10 Downing Street - focused on burgeoning economic links, along with the “global significance and strategic importance of stronger UK-China relations in promoting global peace, stability and prosperity”.
The two countries pledged to “enhance bilateral trade and investment”, deepen the “unparalleled” partnership between their financial services sectors and co-operate on major initiatives including Britain’s National Infrastructure Plan and Northern Powerhouse and China’s “One Belt One Road” project to improve transport links with Europe.
The UK “welcomes the progressive participation of Chinese companies in its civil nuclear energy projects” and both sides encourage their nation’s countries to “deepen co-operation and participation in high-speed rail”, the document stated.
It confirmed agreements to refrain from cyber-espionage and to liberalise visa regimes and called for the “swift” launch of a feasibility study for a China/EU Free Trade Agreement, as well as increasing opportunities for cultural and sporting links, study and tourism.
Downing Street said discussions at Chequers would focus on global affairs, with extremism expected to be high on the agenda.
China, along with Russia, blocked a series of Western resolutions at the United Nations against Bashar Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. The international community is keenly watching how China responds to the fight against Islamic State following Russian military intervention in the conflict-riven country.
The Prime Minister will also use the talks to raise concerns over Hong Kong directly with the president, following claims by democracy campaigners of increasing interference by Beijing in the running of the former British colony.
“The PM specifically said to the president he wanted to have the opportunity to discuss this further at Chequers,” the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman said.