LONDON – The British public has had a surfeit of China in the last few days. President Xi Jinping was given a state welcome with all the flummery and pageantry which British tradition can summon up. These included a drive down the Mall to Buckingham Palace with the queen.
The Chinese community in London were mustered to greet him and to ensure that the small group of protesters who had been corralled together by the police could be neither seen nor heard by the Chinese president (or was he to be regarded as “emperor”?). There was a state banquet at the palace and the usual formal dinner at the Guildhall in the City of London.
The choreographed press conference only allowed two questions. Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne were determined to avoid anything that might embarrass the leader of a superpower and tarnish in any way the gold-plated commercial and financial package accompanying the unsmiling dictator.
Of course, his route took him nowhere near the Royal Academy in Piccadilly where Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei has been displaying examples of his art, which do not disguise his disgust at Chinese human rights abuses.
Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had a short private audience with Xi, said he would raise the question of human rights. If he did it is unlikely to have made any more impact on the Chinese leader than any remarks which Cameron may have made in the official talks at 10 Downing St or at Chequers, his official country residence, from which he accompanied Xi to a local pub for a pint of beer.
The only indirect public criticism came from the speaker of the House of Commons when Xi was invited to address both houses of Parliament. Introducing the Chinese president, he said that the last person invited to give a similar address had been Aung San Suu Kyi, who was struggling for democracy in Myanmar, which shares a border with China. Cameron grimaced. Xi remained po-faced. Indeed he rarely smiled except when he visited the Manchester City Football Club.
The Prince of Wales, who is a friend of the Dalai Lama and sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, excused himself from the state banquet, which was attended by all other available members of the royal family, including his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. However, he entertained the president and Mrs. Xi to tea at Clarence House, his official residence. It has not been revealed whether the prince thought Xi was like the previous generation of Chinese leaders, whom he had described as “appalling old waxworks.”
The emphasis throughout the visit has been on Chinese investment and trade. Many “billion dollar” contracts, including Chinese investment in nuclear plants and in the building of a large cruise ship, were concluded. China, awash with huge reserves, was looking for ways of earning secure returns. The Chinese also want access to the financial services of the City of London with the aim of bolstering the renminbi as an international currency. The City, anxious to keep its role as the center of world finance, will be glad to oblige.
It was unfortunate that the visit occurred at a moment when the British steel industry has largely succumbed to cheap imports of Chinese steel being dumped in Europe as domestic Chinese demand has declined. This has led to thousands of jobs in the British steel industry being wiped out and whole communities devastated. It is difficult to see what the government can do to help and Xi had no consolations to offer.
British friends of Japan looked vainly for signs that Japan and South Korea were not being forgotten or overlooked. The Japanese ambassador was invited to the state banquet, but there were no references to the important role of Japanese banks and securities houses in the City of London.
No one compared the flashing wads of Chinese cash with the meticulously planned Japanese investment in British manufacturing, which began over 40 years ago and has done so much to revive manufacturing in Britain. The Nissan, Toyota and Honda investments have ensured not only the survival of motor manufacturing in Britain but enabled Britain to become again a major exporter of vehicles.
No mention was made of the impact on British industry of Japanese quality control and technology. Nor was there any sign that Japan was recognized and esteemed as the most important democratic country in the Far East with a culture that has attracted so much interest in Britain over the last few years,
Some observers may have recalled Napoleon’s gibe about Britain being a nation of shopkeepers. Others felt that Britain was demeaning itself by fawning to the Chinese superpower. The cartoonists had a field day showing Cameron bowing till he licked the ground and in another depicting him, Osborne and even the queen, allowing themselves to be walked over by Xi and his minions embarking in their airplane to return to Beijing smirking over British humiliation.
We should not, however, blow this visit out of proportion, nauseating though aspects of it may seem. XI will shortly be visiting other European countries, which will doubtless try to outdo Britain in attracting trade and investment and may succeed. The Chinese leadership, with its infinite sense of superiority combined with a resentment of historical insults, will brush it all aside.
China today with a population some 10 times larger than Japan, strong and growing armed forces and the second-largest GDP in the world may not be ultimately as invulnerable as some of its leaders think. It faces huge and possibly incurable demographic problems. Xi is determined that the Chinese Communist Party will retain power and crush all opposition but as his anti-corruption drive has shown a self perpetuating oligarchy depends on able successors. The “mandate of heaven” is not a crown, or if it is, it is an “uneasy” one.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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