U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron resisted a request from Chinese officials yesterday to remove the poppy symbol that Britons wear every November in memory of their war dead during his visit to Beijing, according to two British officials familiar with the matter.
Poppies have been Britain’s symbol of remembrance since World War I, when the flowers grew on battlefields. The Royal British Legion sells paper poppies in November to raise funds for veterans in the run-up to Armistice Day on Nov. 11.
The flower has a different resonance in China, which fought and lost two Opium Wars with Britain in the 19th century. Those resulted in the U.K. forcing the Chinese to open their borders to trade, including in the narcotic derived from the Asian variety of the poppy. Britain also gained the territory of Hong Kong, which was not handed back to China until 1997.
“The Chinese leadership is increasingly projecting a ‘Great Power’ mentality and it is a reflection of rising nationalism in the country,” Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, said in a phone interview. “The Chinese leaders understand very well that the Chinese people in general expect their leadership to fight for an enhancement of China’s international status. The performance of Chinese leaders in diplomacy becomes an important source of the regime’s legitimacy.”
The U.K. officials said the Chinese requested the prime minister and his delegation remove the poppies from their lapels before they arrived yesterday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where Cameron was greeted by Premier Wen Jiabao and inspected an honor guard of the People’s Liberation Army. The U.K. government refused, on the grounds that the symbol was important to Britain.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement today that it had no knowledge of the incident.
“British Prime Minister Cameron is paying an official visit to China as the leader of a large delegation,” the ministry said. “The purpose of the visit is to strengthen the nations’ pragmatic cooperation in various areas and to improve the friendship between the people of the two countries.”
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Second Opium War, which ended when the British and French armies arrived in Peking, as Beijing was then known, and destroyed the emperor’s Summer Palace to remind the Chinese of their defeat.
Cameron’s two-day visit has focused on boosting trade ties. He signed an accord yesterday improving access for U.K. companies to China’s securities markets. Rolls-Royce Group Plc signed a $1.2 billion order to provide 16 jet engines to China Eastern Airlines Corp., and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc reached a deal with Guolian Securities Co. to underwrite bonds and shares.
The governments agreed to work together to improve financing for small companies. British companies will help build corporate and government bond markets, develop alternative investment vehicles and create an offshore market for the Chinese yuan.
In Beijing today, Cameron told an audience of students today that multiparty democracy, a free press and independent judiciary make Britain stronger, as he urged China to open up its political system. He also said economic imbalances, including China’s trade surplus and curbs on its currency, risk sparking protectionism and pushing the world economy into recession.
Cameron then traveled to South Korea for the summit of the Group of 20 leading economies. He will mark Armistice Day tomorrow by visiting a memorial for British troops killed in the Korean War, where their opponents included the Chinese.