26 October 2016
Xi Jinping and David Cameron: still not close enough to speak frankly. Photo:
Xi Jinping and David Cameron: still not close enough to speak frankly. Photo:

Triumphant Xi rebuffs Cameron plea on Hong Kong democracy

It must have been a bittersweet moment for Xi Jinping, the head of the world’s biggest communist party, to be riding in a golden carriage seated next to Queen Elizabeth II — the world’s second-longest-reigning monarch, after King Bhumibol of Thailand — 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 Britain in 15 years.

Fifty-seven years later, riding in the ultra-modern Australian-built royal coach drawn by six white horses, Xi had the satisfaction of knowing that his country had long surpassed Britain in economic terms and that the British were now supplicants for 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 romp in London and Manchester was nothing short of triumphant.

While the Americans honored him last month with a 21-gun salute at the White House, the British outdid this with a 103-gun royal salute, albeit split between two venues.

The Chinese leader, on his part, acknowledged his appreciation of English literature, disclosing that while a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, when all foreign literature was banned, he secretly read the works of Shakespeare.

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 Xi’s visit were valued at more than US$60 billion.

A study last year by Britain’s Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted that China would invest US$169 billion in the period up to 2025, mainly in property and infrastructure.

One of the biggest and most controversial projects is the US$28 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, in which China General Nuclear Power Corp. 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 Britain and the United States?

George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer, 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 Prime Minister David Cameron against such a move.

But Washington and London still share common values – something that is certainly not true of Beijing.

Just before Xi’s trip, an exhibition of a copy of the Magna Carta was canceled at Renmin University and had to be moved to the British ambassador’s residence.

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 European Union.

China also wants Britain 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,” 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 representative 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.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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