Theresa May and Liam Fox at odds on customs union

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She hailed the work on gender equality of the co-founder and chair of Alibaba, Jack Ma, who is believed to be China's richest man, who she met at the forum.

In an interview with Sky News Mrs May was asked whether the £9 billion-worth of deals struck during her three-day trip showed it was possible to increase trade with countries like China without a free trade agreement and that the United Kingdom could therefore remain "very closely aligned with the EU, and a customs union too".

Asked if Cabinet ministers on the Brexit sub-committee would hold crunch talks about the deal sought with Brussels, the spokesman said: "There are meetings of the sub-committee next week but we won't get into the discussion that will take place within those sub-committees".

"We also want to ensure that we can trade across borders".

The Prime Minister did not rule out staying in a customs union with the EU, saying simply that she wanted the best possible "trade arrangements" with other countries after Brexit.

Mainland Chinese media have praised Theresa May's 31 January-2 February visit from start to finish.

Pro-democracy activists were sent to jail for obstructing a court-ordered clearance of a protest site in Hong Kong during the 2014 Occupy movement.

While the PM has been away, her ministers have been squabbling over the leaked impact assessments that predicted the negative economic effects of Brexit would far outweigh the positives from new trade deals with other global economies.

Diplomatic sources say while China has expressed concern about Brexit, it has also been reassured by messages that Britain's door is wide open to Chinese investment - a marked contrast to the suspicious reception Chinese companies have recently received in Germany.

They have called for the prime minister to be clearer about her own position.

But she simply refused to accept that her next round of deal-making with the European Union will require a choice between a closely-bound relationship with Brussels or a more dramatic break.

We know more or less what the transition will look like.

Media captionPM: The UK will not have to choose between a free trade deal with the European Union and a deal with the rest of the world.

However, if the March deadline is missed, there would be a risk of waiting until the next full European Union summit, which is not planned until late June, creating a very tight deadline to agree a broad political declaration of future trade plans.

She has repeatedly said Brexit will mean leaving the single market and customs union.