Kate's Red Dress Wins China Warmth in Boost for Ties With U.K.

  • Xi quotes Shakespeare to echo Cameron's `best is yet to come'
  • Questions over human rights, security and steel in background

The Duchess of Cambridge and Xi Jinping.

Photographer: Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images

When the Duchess of Cambridge wore a bright red dress to the state banquet honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping in London this week, China’s press went to town. 

QuickTake China’s World Bank

“Kate is wearing Chinese red to greet the President and his wife,” trumpeted a headline in the state-owned China Daily newspaper, a reference to the wife of Prince William, second in line to the throne of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II, who hosted the dinner.

Attention to such details, the pomp that’s marked Xi’s visit to the U.K., and old-fashioned political pragmatism have helped revive a relationship in a way that seemed unlikely just seven months ago.

Since the U.K. in March became the first major western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, London has been steadily campaigning to become what Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne calls “China’s best partner in the West.” In contrast to the aftermath of Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, when China’s press portrayed Britain as a destination only good for tourism and education, it’s now touting a “golden era” of ties.

To some in the U.K., the welcome given to Xi has left a bad taste at a time when thousands of British steelworkers are losing their jobs in the face of a market flooded by cheap Chinese imports. There are also fears about handing control of key industries to a superpower with global ambitions and a questionable human rights record. Lawmakers raised questions in parliament about the wisdom of adopting such closeness to China, and a BBC reporter allowed the only British question at a press conference quizzed both leaders on the apparent contradiction between doing business and promoting human rights.

Unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, who raised the thorny issues of cyber-espionage and territorial disputes with his Chinese counterpart during a state visit to the U.S. last month, Cameron hasn’t let political differences overshadow Xi’s time in the country.

‘Work Together’

“The more we trade together the more we have a stake in each other’s success and the more we understand each other and the more we can work together,” Cameron said this week.

The approach is paying off: Cameron said Xi’s trip will bring more than 30 billion pounds ($46 billion) to the U.K., including a Chinese company taking a stake in Hinkley Point, the world’s most expensive nuclear power station. No matter that David Howell, one of Cameron’s former ministers and father-in-law of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, warned lawmakers it would impose “eye-watering” costs on British families and businesses.

“Britain really has moved out all the highest protocols, all the bells and whistles,” Victor Gao, a current affairs commentator, said on official broadcaster China Central Television. “There is a lot of symbolism, but it also reflects well in substance. If both China and Britain can treat each other as equals with the full respect of the other side, the economic and financial side will benefit.”

‘Full Respect’

“In the United States, Washington has not yet reached this level of treating the other side with full respect,” said Gao, who the CCTV website described as a former interpretor for late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

It wasn’t just the red dress that wowed China. The press chronicled how three generations of royalty feted Xi, from the Queen’s tour of her personal collection of Chinese treasures to Prince William’s visit with him to see the car that special agent 007 drives in “Spectre,” the latest James Bond film.

Even the greeting by Prince Charles -- whose relationship with China has been strained over his support for Tibet -- at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the first morning of Xi’s visit was cited.

And protesters outside the venues where Xi appeared were kept closely controlled and outnumbered by pro-China protesters with T-shirts, dancing dragons and enormous Chinese flags. The Times newspaper published photographs of boxes the props were delivered in, sealed with “Diplomatic Bag” tape.

“Why in the U.K., where our democracy is built on the principle of free speech, were protesters in the Mall this week exercising their right to draw attention to human rights abuses in Tibet corralled behind barricades at the back while Chinese state sponsored cheerleaders were given Love China t-shirts and Chinese diplomatic bags and given prime position at the front?” Tim Loughton, another former minister asked in the House of Commons on Thursday.

Another no-detail-is-too-small example was the Scottish wool cape given to Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, by the Imperial College London. The hosts didn’t have Peng’s measurements, so they used data technology to calculate her size based on Peng’s public photos. In the pictures published in the Chinese media, Peng looked thrilled.

British Understanding

Another highlight was Xi’s visit with Cameron to a pub, where he downed a pint of beer and dug into some fish and chips. He came across as relaxed during the U.K. trip, in contrast to his time in the U.S. where he appeared stiff and over-rehearsed. The imperative for the U.K. to avoid tensions with China is potentially more acute, given it is a much smaller trading partner of China than the U.S.

Britain’s understanding of the current world order is “more mature and rational” than the U.S. with its “fascination with power and coercion,” said an editorial published Thursday by Phoenix media. “Generosity, calmness and composure are in their genes because of their long, glorious history,” it said. The British are “making wise choices beyond ideological boundaries.”

For his part, Xi signaled he’ll focus on the the future rather than the past.

“What’s past is prologue,” Xi told a joint sitting of parliament Tuesday, quoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The People’s Daily newspaper said his comment echoed Cameron’s recent CCTV interview where he said: “The best is yet to come.”

But not everyone in Britain was as easily won-over as the prime minister by Xi’s largesse. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Conservative supporting Spectator magazine, tweeted: “This is starting to look less like a state visit and more like a landlord’s inspection.”

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