HONG KONG — In case you thought that British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to China was really a meeting of “equals” — as China’s second in command, Li Keqiang, described the countries — a major Chinese government newspaper, Global Times, would like to dispel those illusions.
Yesterday, in a front-page editorial on the second day of Cameron’s visit, the newspaper declared that Great Britain “should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power” in the eyes of China.
Rather, the once-great nation of Shakespeare and Churchill should admit it is now “merely a country of old Europe suitable for tourism and overseas study, with a few decent football teams.” (That’s from the Chinese-language version.)
This broadside came the morning after Cameron arrived and declared that he was embarking on a “dialogue of mutual respect and understanding.”
To be sure, there’s a kernel of truth to the editorial.
Many offspring of Communist Party bigwigs do indeed attend elite British schools, reveling in the intellectual freedom and openness of the academic environment. Bo Guagua, the hard-partying son of fallen top leader Bo Xilai, studied at the elite Harrow school and went on to read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford.
The rest of the editorial, though, reads as little more than a schoolyard taunt that reflects badly both on the British PM and his Chinese hosts.
Cameron’s tepid reply underscores how wary he is of saying anything to irritate Beijing, for fear of jeopardizing trade. “I would just prefer to go on the figures,” citing nearly $10 billion of new deals, the prime minister said.
The mission of his much-hyped visit to China, with a delegation of 120 business people in tow, was to drum up investment in the UK, and to repair Sino-British ties. (Beijing was infuriated that Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012; the Ministry of Foreign affairs said at the time that the UK had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.")
On China's side, the embarrassment is a matter of diplomacy. Publishing the editorial during Cameron's visit was no accident — the Global Times is tied to the government — and yet it only serves to humiliate China's so-called "indispensable partner."
The British public is already plenty riled up over it; see the UK media backlash here, here, here, and here.
So why do it?
First, it should be noted that the Global Times has a well-earned reputation for frothing-at-the-mouth nationalism.
Second, to a degree perhaps not fully understood by outsiders who see China as great and powerful, China still has a huge chip on its shoulder about foreign imperialism. Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the UK, Japan, and other Western powers took advantage of their nation’s 19th century weakness in order to impose a “Century of Humiliation” on the Middle Kingdom.
Some of this sentiment came out during an online Q&A conducted on Cameron’s newly-opened Sina Weibo account (a Chinese version of Twitter).
One of the most popular questions asked, “When will Britain return the illegally plundered artifacts?” The question alluded to thousands of objects in the British Museum that were taken from the imperial palace in the 19th century.
Third, there's lingering tension on both sides over Great Britain's legacy in Hong Kong. The last major colony of the British Empire, Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 under an agreement that held that the city would eventually gain universal suffrage.
This year, Beijing and London scuffled over the issue. In September, the British representative in Hong Kong said that voters deserved "genuine choice" among candidates in a future election, which China promptly denounced as "interference" in the city's "internal affairs." Hong Kong is supposed to achieve universal suffrage in 2017, but Beijing has signaled that it won’t tolerate candidates it deems unpatriotic.
These issues play no small part in fanning the flames of resentment toward today’s considerably smaller, gentler UK.
But still, the low-blow editorial is puzzling.
Though Beijing often wrings its hands over how to increase China’s “soft power,” the pettiness of the editorial seems exactly like a tutorial in how not to win foreign hearts and minds.
That's why you almost have to wonder whether it was meant as satire. A bit of off-color tribute to a nation renowned for dry wit?
Unfortunately, probably not. In the state-run China News Service, China's ambassador to Britain said that the problem between the two countries was not one of a "fundamental conflict of interest." Rather, he said it was a problem of having a distorted view of one another's countries.
"Some people in British society are still unable to get rid of the Cold War mentality," he said, "viewing China through tinted glasses."