HONG KONG – It must have been a bitter-sweet moment for Xi Jinping, the head of the world’s biggest Communist Party, to be riding in a gilded carriage seated next to Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s second longest reigning monarch, on their way to Buckingham Palace. After all, in the 1950s, when Xi was a mere child and Elizabeth was already queen, Chairman Mao Zedong set for China the seemingly impossible goal of catching up with the United Kingdom in 15 years. Fifty-seven years later, riding in the royal coach drawn by six white horses, Xi had the satisfaction of knowing that his country had long surpassed the U.K. and that the British were now supplicants seeking Chinese investment.
History, obviously, has not been forgotten by China. The BBC reported that the People’s Daily declared in a front-page editorial: “The national humiliation that China suffered in modern times began with the rumble of cannon from British warships.”
Xi’s four-day U.K. romp was nothing short of triumphant. While last month the Americans honored him with a 21-gun salute at the White House, the British outdid this with a 103-gun royal salute, albeit at two venues.
Xi, on his part, acknowledged his appreciation of English literature, disclosing that while a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, he secretly read the works of Shakespeare, as all foreign literature was banned at the time.
Moreover, Shakespeare, it turned out, was in a way responsible for his becoming China’s leader today. “Standing on the barren loess land of Shaanxi as a young man, I often pondered the question of ‘to be or not to be’, ” he told a British audience. “Eventually I made up my mind that I shall dedicate myself to serving my country and my people.”
Agreements signed during the Xi visit were valued at more than $60 billion. A study last year by the Center for Economics and Business Research predicted that China would invest $169 billion in the period up to 2025, mainly in property and infrastructure. One of the biggest and most controversial projects is the $28 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, in which China General Nuclear Power Corporation has agreed to take a one-third interest.
The two countries, in a joint statement, pledged to build a global comprehensive strategic partnership. Officials on each side hailed the arrival of a new “golden era” in the bilateral relationship.
All this raises the question: What about the much touted “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S.? George Osborne, the U.K. chancellor, set as his goal the creation with China of a “relationship that is second to none.”
It is a fact that the London-Washington relationship has seriously declined since the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Earlier this year, an Obama administration official chastised Britain for joining the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and warned against “constant accommodation” of China. Today, Germany is recognized as the most important country in Europe and Britain seems increasingly insular, with a referendum scheduled on whether it should leave the European Union. Xi reportedly advised Cameron against such a move.
But Washington and London still share common values — something that is certainly not true of Beijing. Just before the Xi trip, an exhibition of a copy of the Magna Carta was banned at Renmin University and had to be moved inside the British Embassy.
Britain has promised China to be its “strongest advocate in the West” and the Chinese will hold the British to that promise. Already, Britain is supporting China’s hope for a free trade agreement with the EU. China also wants the U.K. to use its influence to get all EU countries to recognize China as a market economy within the World Trade Organization.
The British deny that they are keeping quiet on sensitive issues, such as human rights in China. “The stronger our economic partnership,” Prime Minister David Cameron said at a press conference, “the stronger our relationship to have the necessary and frank discussions about other issues.”
Cameron did, unexpectedly, raise the Hong Kong question privately, asking Xi to allow Hong Kong to elect its chief executive without prior vetting by Beijing. The response from a Foreign Ministry spokesperson was: “It is hoped that the British side can honor its commitments, be prudent with its words and deeds, and refrain from interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any way.”
From Cameron’s viewpoint, this is probably evidence that the British-China partnership isn’t strong enough yet and needs to be greatly developed.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.