The world is focusing on President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain this week.
The British monarchy and government have rolled out the reddest of red carpets for Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, reflecting the significance of the Sino-British relationship — and the 30 billion pounds (US$46.3 billion) in contracts he has brought with him.
Government officials from Prime Minister David Cameron on down are making no secret of their hope that China will play a growing role in supporting the development of Britain’s economy.
Yet some of Xi’s hosts did not hesitate to hint at their misgivings about his country’s poor human rights record.
These signals indicate that China is still lacking in the soft power needed to emerge as a great country, rather than just an economically strong one.
Britain’s truly free press reflects how the public at large is treating Xi’s visit.
Beijing officials, accustomed to a fawning media, would have expected the British press to run a series of glowing stories on the presidential visit, focusing on the building of a Sino-British golden era.
But those officials would have been shocked on Tuesday, Xi’s first full day in Britain, when The Independent, one of the country’s “quality papers”, published a front-page story on Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung urging Cameron to “publicly challenge” Xi over a crackdown on human rights in the former British colony.
The newspaper, owned by a Russian tycoon, lived up to its name with its own take on Xi’s state visit, headlining its story “The hero of the Umbrella Revolution is here to rain on China’s parade”.
It quoted Wong, the founder of the student group Scholarism, as saying China has not kept its promise to the people of Hong Kong to deliver universal suffrage.
He also condemned the British government for failing to keep its own promise on democracy in Hong Kong (by ensuring its development as provided in the Sino-British Declaration of 1984) and said it views trade with China as “more important”.
In a speech welcoming Xi, Queen Elizabeth seemed to understand that the people of Hong Kong are concerned about the increasing intervention of Beijing into their city’s internal affairs.
She praised the “visionary concept” of “one country, two systems” that the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced.
Pundits interpret the Queen’s reference to Deng’s policy as an indirect reminder to Beijing that it should maintain the unique status of Hong Kong for the full 50 years during which the policy was intended to apply.
At one of the most important events on the visiting president’s itinerary, a speech to both houses of Parliament, John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, pointedly praised Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, another of Parliament’s recent guests, as a “champion of democracy” before inviting Xi to address the assembly.
Observers interpreted that as a reminder to China of its own Nobel peace laureate, the dissident Liu Xiaobo, who languishes in prison.
Several human rights advocacy groups, including Amnesty International, protested in London as Xi arrived.
They urged the British government to monitor the treatment by Beijing authorities of dissidents such as Liu and to work toward freedom for the people in mainland China.
For the first two days of Xi’s visit, most British newspapers didn’t treat it as important news.
On Wednesday, three newspapers did put the presidential visit on the front page, but two of them focused in their stories on Prince William’s wife, Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, wearing the Queen Mother’s lotus flower tiara at the state banquet welcoming Xi.
The Guardian published a story about steelworkers who lost their jobs when several steel plants shut down this week urging Cameron to “put demands on the table” to stop cheap imports of Chinese steel killing the British industry.
Meanwhile, Londoners saw for themselves how mainland China puts on a welcome for visiting leaders.
Tens of thousands of Chinese occupied the best positions along The Mall in London when Xi arrived.
They were dressed in red and waving red flags and holding red banners that said “Welcome President Xi” — which were reportedly provided by the Chinese Embassy.
One of the main functions of the red crowd appeared to be to block protest groups from being seen by Xi as he passed by.
Some Londoners noticed that the welcoming team tossed their red flags in nearby trashcans once he was gone.
China has become one of the world’s most influential countries because of its economic strength, for which it is deservedly respected.
But how deep does this respect go?
The leaders in Beijing may think they can buy a grand reception in places hungry for Chinese investment, like Britain.
But as long as the Communist Party fails to accord the Chinese people the dignity and respect all people want and deserve, China has still a long way to go to be seen as a great nation.
– Contact us at [email protected]