This column can also be read at SCMP.COM
If you didn’t know better, you might have been excused last week for thinking The Global Times had suddenly unearthed a sense of humour.
In a piece only published in its Chinese-language edition, the sister paper of The People’s Daily lambasted the “barbarians” in the British media responsible for reporting on Queen Elizabeth being captured on video describing Chinese officials as “very rude”. “As they experience constant exposure to the 5,000 years of continuous Eastern civilisation, we believe they will make progress” when it comes to manners, the paper declared, adding a description of British journalists as “’gossip fiends’… who bare fangs, brandish claws and are very narcissistic.”
It is quite probable that some British journalists merit this characterisation. Some may even feel flattered by it. In their narcissism, moreover, they may not have considered how fortunate they are not to be bundled off at airports for crossing their political masters, as happens in China. Whatever their feelings, though, one must resist the urge to discern satire in the pages of a Communist Party mouthpiece. Indeed, the view expressed by The Global Times rather confirms something we all knew anyway and which the British monarch has exposed afresh: that the Chinese state takes itself rather more seriously than is good for it.
Let’s just recap how an off-the-cuff remark blew up into what the world’s news channels were on hand to label an “explosive” diplomatic wedge. At a garden party at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, Her Majesty was introduced to the police commander who had been responsible for overseeing security arrangements ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last October. As this police commander related how a Chinese delegation had walked out of a meeting with the British ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, the Queen said: “They were very rude to the ambassador.”
Pressed into welcoming Xi with the full pomp and pageantry of the British state by a government desperate to grease up to the world’s rising superpower, the Queen would have been well aware that his emissaries had been, well, somewhat demanding. It has been reported that they wanted Chinese security officials to be allowed to carry guns and for anti-Chinese protests to be banned. Both requests were denied; however, during the visit a bodyguard tried to insert himself alongside Xi and the Queen in her royal carriage. Sources have revealed, too, that the Palace had to insist that none of the delegation use laptops or tablets during the state banquet in Xi’s honour. The President’s support staff had their own food flown over from Beijing. Moreover, on a previous visit to Britain, in 2014, premier Li Keqiang’s minders complained that the red carpet rolled out for him at Heathrow Airport was not long enough.
In short, if the Queen felt that Chinese officials had at various turns been “very rude”, she almost certainly had good reason for it. Unfortunately for her on this occasion, her own officials let her down by allowing a private conversation to be first filmed then released to media outlets. It has been suggested that she might have been more guarded, but for goodness’ sake, the woman is 90 years old and has spent her entire adult life being guarded. Not for nothing is she parodied for being anodyne in conversation.
One can only speculate as to what Xi Jinping might have had to say in private about his visit to Britain. Perhaps he thought the beer he shared with Prime Minister David Cameron revolting; perhaps he found it amusing that the English Football Association inducted a Chinese player, Sun Jihai, into its Hall of “Fame” when very few people in England know who he is; perhaps he misinterpreted protestors’ two-fingered salutes as gestures of friendship. In any event, some poor hack would be made to pay the price if it ever got out.
As for the Queen, in this day and age she has no choice but to tolerate members of her own fourth estate dragging up their country’s imperial past, and the opium wars, and calling her a hypocrite. In reality, when it comes down to it, she probably just thought it polite to agree with a policewoman.