Chinese President Xi Jinping burnished his image and sealed deals during a trip to Britain that underscored a changed relationship and Beijing’s ascent.

Xi Jinping and David Cameron share a beer and fish & chips, 22 October 2015 (EPA/Andy Rain/pool)
Xi Jinping and David Cameron share a beer and fish & chips, 22 October 2015 (EPA/Andy Rain/pool)

By Jane Macartney

President Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao and certainly the first to foster a similar personality cult.

He must have relished burnishing his image last week by riding through London with the Queen in a gleaming carriage, receiving a 103-gun salute and sitting next to the Duchess of Cambridge at a lavish banquet at Buckingham Palace.

But most important was to know that when he shared a pint with Prime Minister David Cameron in a small country pub, he received a promise from Britain to be China’s “strongest advocate in the West.”

Fulsome pledges by Britain’s leaders of a “golden era” and a “relationship that is second to none” resulted in a flurry of deals with China worth about 30 billion pounds.

The highlight and most controversial was China’s taking a one-third interest in the 18-billion-pound Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

“Like a supplicant, fawning spaniel”

The United States, anxious about Britain’s “accommodation” of China, sounded concerns about opening such a strategic and high security sector to investment from the world’s biggest communist state.

Would China ever jeopardize Britain’s security by turning off the nuclear switch? Wouldn’t such a move mean China would never win another Western contract, ending its ambitions to create world-beating corporations by extending investments from the purely domestic arena into world markets?

China’s reputation as a hard bargainer could be a more realistic risk for Britain. One Chinese analyst stressed that the success of the deals lies in the future.

“Let us see if, once these contracts are signed and after Xi Jinping has left, China will try to renegotiate the terms. After all, that is their usual style.”

Critics at home accused the British government of performing a humiliating kowtow before the Chinese guest.

Britain was already behaving “like a supplicant, fawning spaniel that licks the hand that beats it,” said opposition Labour backbencher Paul Flynn. After such promises of friendship, Britain may lack clout at the negotiation table if China does try to seek better terms.

“Times have changed.”

Traditional allies fear that Britain’s willingness to please Beijing — abandoning pressure on human rights, agreeing to no more meetings with the Dalai Lama — will result in only more pressure from China in other areas.

James McGregor, chairman of Chinese operations for consultancy group APCO Worldwide, was struck by what he saw as the British lapdog rather than the British bulldog. “If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash,” he said.

Privately, Chinese officials have already hinted to British counterparts — even while President Xi was still on British soil last week — that Whitehall mandarins have not been sufficiently accommodating.

Champagne with the Duchess of Cambridge, 20 October 2015 (EPA/Dominic Lipinski)
Champagne with the Duchess of Cambridge, 20 October 2015 (EPA/Dominic Lipinski)

The visit showed none of the tensions on display during Xi’s visit to the United States last month when friction over issues from cyber security to China’s maritime disputes in the South China Sea overshadowed discussions.

Indeed, state media in China relished the symbolism of the Communist Party leader being welcomed to stay at Buckingham Palace by the British monarch.

Long gone are the days when Britain used gunboat diplomacy to blast open China’s markets to trade. China did not fail to remark on the turnaround in the fortunes of the two nations.

“The national humiliation that China suffered in modern times began with the rumble of cannon from British warships. But times have changed,” the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, reminded readers in a front-page editorial.

“(China) does not bully those past aggressors with its strength.”

Thus the nascent superpower of the 21st century commenting on the fading imperium of the 19th century.


Jane Macartney worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times and Reuters. She was the Times correspondent in China for six years and lived in Japan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London when working for Reuters. She reported on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and traveled to Tibet during periods of unrest there. She is author of part of a book on the 1989 student movement in China and contributor to a book on the Afghan war.

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