Ten years ago relations between the Chinese executive and Britain’s royals were as bad as they had ever been. The Mail on Sunday somehow got its hands on Prince Charles’s private diaries and published his description of the leaders of the Communist regime as “appalling old waxworks.”
Never mind that the diary entry dated from the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese—the communist leadership was outraged. Relations entered the deep freeze, made worse by Prince Charles’s habit of meeting with and giving a platform to the Dalai Lama—whom the Chinese regard as a separatist terrorist.
The U.K. government and business lobby were largely unconcerned by the ruffling of Chinese feathers. China was a long way away back then. Who cared?
And anyway, Charles was right. The brutal course of modern Chinese history, from Tiananmen Square onwards, proved that the Chinese really were awful. Britain wanted nothing to do with them.
What a difference a global recession makes.
Today, it’s a very different story.
We love the Chinese. We would very much like to be their new best friends. Hell, we’ll even let them run vast chunks of our telecommunications industry.
And over the next four days, the British establishment is going to get the chance to prove just how well it looks after its pals.
The Chinese leader President Xi Jinping arrived in London on Monday in advance of a four-day official tour beginning today, Tuesday, and the establishment are busy pulling out all the stops to shower the Chinese in the greatest display of pomp and pageantry lavished on a visiting dignitary in recent memory.
There was a horse-drawn procession of carriages down the Mall. There will be dinner at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country pad, with David Cameron. There will even be Kate Middleton; at a formal banquet for 150 at Buckingham Palace tonight, the Chinese president will be the guest of honor and will be seated between the Queen and Duchess Kate, who will, we have been briefed, be wearing a special diamond tiara to mark her first official state banquet.
The only thing that there won’t be very much of is Prince Charles.
In an almost unbelievable fit of pique, the petulant prince—who, let us not forget, will be king as soon as his 89-year-old mother dies—appears to be seeking to singlehandedly defuse Britain’s Chinese love bomb. He has taken it upon himself to be the voice of conscience, the moral objector, the holier-than-thou royal, shaking an admonitory finger at the world’s most powerful leader.
Charles has form in this regard. He boycotted a Chinese state visit to Britain in 1999, when he failed to attend a banquet hosted for Jiang Zemin, who was then Chinese president. A former private secretary to Charles, Mark Bolland, described it as “a deliberate snub” in a court statement in 2006.
Charles’s non-attendance at these banquets then and now is a carefully calculated snub—designed specifically to telegraph a message to the Chinese that they are, frankly, still not worthy of his respect.
Prince Charles’s advisers have come up with the quite pathetic excuse that, ahead of a series of international tours, he will be “resting”—as if he were some highly strung thoroughbred mare running in the Grand National the next day.
His advisers have sought to put out a message that his non-attendance at the banquet should not be interpreted as signal of disrespect as Charles and his wife, Camilla, are hosting Xi and his wife, the former pop star Peng Liyuan, to tea at their private home.
There have also been briefings that Charles chose not to see his old friend and mentor the Dalai Lama when he visited the U.K. last month. After British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, China canceled diplomatic meetings between the two countries and British newspapers reported that Cameron had been banned from China.
However there is little doubt that Prince Charles’s absence from the banquet will be interpreted in China as exactly what it is—a straightforward diss.
This is not to say there are not many reasons to be disgusted with China—and the issue of China’s vast human-rights abuses is undoubtedly what lies behind Charles’s antipathy—but a state visit is not the time to stamp your foot and scold your guests.
This is the moment to play the good cop, to try to charm the Chinese into behaving just a little bit better (it’s clear that threatening them won’t get us very far anyway).
Charles’s son understands this. Prince William is using his influence and the state visit as a platform to try to get out a message that the only way to significantly reduce animal poaching is to reduce demand for poached animal products in China.
In a speech carried live on prime time Chinese TV last night, William became the first senior royal to directly appeal to the Chinese to stop buying items such as powdered rhino horn for medicinal purposes.
It was a brilliant speech, not least because it artfully acknowledged the generational hypocrisy implicit in William’s campaign.
He said, “Until 100 years ago my ancestors were among those who had little concern about acquiring ivory, without the knowledge of the threats of extinction, corruption, and violence that the ivory trade would lead to.
“My rejection of ivory today is not a judgment of past generations. It is an acceptance of the world as I find it today and the world I want my children, George and Charlotte, to inherit.
“Likewise, those doctors and medical practitioners in China that are speaking out against the use of endangered species in medicine, they are not judging previous generations who did not have the facts that you do today. They are just accepting the truth that all credible evidence and scientific research shows, for example, that rhino horn cannot cure cancer.”
No-one’s mad about the Chinese habits of crushing dissent or powdering tigers’ penises, but a calculated diplomatic initiative has been taken by the British government. China will become an increasingly important trading partner to the U.K. (just as it is to the U.S., which also hosted Xi), especially if the country votes to leave the EU in a referendum next year.
Charles has never been able to act as if he truly understands that the role of a constitutional monarch is not to have opinions, it is to do the bidding of the people, as expressed through their government.
Does the Queen mind hosting the ruthless communist leadership to a glittering white tie dinner at the Palace?
The question is utterly irrelevant. It is not constitutional to mind.
And the future King should be following her faultless example.