SHANGHAI -- For Chinese President Xi Jinping, receiving such a warm and lavish welcome from Britain's royalty, political and business elite is, some observers have noted, almost as important as the trade deals signed on this week's state visit to London.
China's state-controlled media has downplayed criticisms and protests in the U.K. in coverage of the visit, highlighting instead the rare level of courtesy shown to the Chinese president by the royal family: Xi is staying three nights at Buckingham Palace and has held individual meetings with all major members of the royal family, which also held a state banquet in his honor.
Chinese officials know that such pageantry and gestures of respect are a boost to the president’s credibility at home at a time of pressure on the economy. And Thursday's Chinese newspapers and websites continued the theme: There was Xi laughing with Prince Andrew, his wife Peng Liyuan chatting with Queen Elizabeth, and the two of them smiling with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. TV screens on the Shanghai subway on Thursday were still showing images of Xi inspecting the honor guard with Prince Philip at his official welcoming ceremony on Tuesday – which also filled the front page of the influential Southern Weekly. And many front pages carried pictures of Xi standing with Prime Minister David Cameron on the steps of 10 Downing St., where the prime minister resides.
For many papers, including the Shanghai Morning Post, the top headline on Thursday was “Xi meets Cameron, announces a new golden era of bilateral relations.” Others hailed the two countries’ relationship as a “A global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century”, as Caixin magazine put it. The Global Times also highlighted this phrase - first used by the two countries a decade ago -- saying it implied an “enduring, inclusive and win-win relationship” for Britain and China.
But, as in the British media coverage, the sealing of a $9 billion investment by state-owned China General Nuclear Corp. in the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor in the southwest of England, in partnership with French company EDF, was a focal point. Many Chinese reports stressed the symbolic significance of this first major nuclear project for China in a developed country: “Our own third-generation nuclear power station arrives in Britain!” proclaimed Shanghai news website the Paper, with more than a hint of pride. It said this was “a milestone in the international expansion of China’s nuclear industry.” The Global Times quoted Xi's comment that this was “a flagship project," along with an expert who said this “symbolic step” would “open more doors for Chinese nuclear companies in the future.”
There was little reference to the criticisms of the project in Britain, where environmentalists such as former Friends of the Earth head Jonathan Porritt have described it as a “white elephant ... [one of the] most expensive power stations in the world” that risks having its planned 2025 start date delayed by technological issues. Nor was there any reference to other complaints about China’s nuclear safety record, and the dangers of allowing an authoritarian state to influence a key part of Britain’s infrastructure.
Instead there has been continuing good news about what the China Daily called “record-breaking trade deals,” with some media headlining the fact that “150 projects” were to be approved, with a total worth of some $60 billion. Chinese media gave a breakdown of the deals, which included billion pounds ($3 billion) in healthcare trade deals and collaborations – with the U.K. to train Chinese doctors and nurses, and build hospitals in China, and universities from the two countries to cooperate on developing cancer treatments. Chinese funding for iconic car brand Aston Martin, British Petroleum cooperating with China National Petroleum Corp. in Iraq and Angola, and plans to build a British-backed Legoland theme park in Shanghai were also highlighted. A Chinese company is also reported to be buying the major British toy retailer Hamleys.
But for one Shanghai newspaper the trade deals came second: the Oriental Morning Post headlined the announcement of a “relaxation of visas for Chinese tourists” -- while the Shanghai Morning Post highlighted the “beautiful women and jewelry” on display at the state banquet at Buckingham Palace.
Chinese media this week praised Britain for what the president called its "wisdom" in putting differences over human rights and security issues to one side to forge ahead with economic ties. It’s a contrast to the approach of the U.S., which, during Xi's visit last month, focused on issues including cybersecurity, and tensions over China’s construction on islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea. For its part, China is unhappy about U.S. restrictions on transfers of high technology. Chinese media emphasized the U.K.'s cooperation with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which has been excluded from infrastructure projects in the U.S. for security reasons.
A plan for Huawei and the University of Surrey to cooperate on a 5G innovation center “sets an example for the U.S., with a more open attitude toward cooperation with China,” said an opinion piece in the Global Times. It added, “U.S. firms may lose out if U.S. authorities refuse to follow in the footsteps of the U.K. in opening high-tech markets to Chinese investment.”
And the Paper revealed another first – the appointment of e-commerce giant Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma as a special economic adviser to Cameron. Ma is “the first Chinese entrepreneur ever to have this title,” the Paper noted, quoting Cameron as saying Alibaba was a business from a “new world and a new economy, and was one of the most eye-catching companies” of recent years.
There were brief references to Xi’s assurance to U.K. investors that the slowing Chinese economy will not face a “hard landing,” and to his comments about respecting the rule of law and human rights.
But there was little comment on some of the bitter British criticisms of the government’s warm embrace of China -- Cameron’s friend and former adviser Steve Hilton, for example, wrote a blistering attack on Britain’s “kowtow” to China’s “cruel, corrupt Communist dictators.”
Street protests in London against Xi's visit were not mentioned either, with Chinese media focusing on the crowds of Chinese students who greeted the president with flags and banners at many of his events in London -- although British media have suggested that at least some of those taking part were pushed to do so by the Chinese Embassy.
The Global Times did acknowledge reports that Prince Charles did not attend the state banquet at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evening as a gesture of solidarity with his friend, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom China denounces as a separatist. But it brushed the reports aside, saying they were speculation by a biased Western media, and such "chatter" would not affect the “historical significance” of Xi’s visit.
There were also few references to the controversy in the U.K. about whether Chinese steel-dumping had contributed to the closure of several steelworks, with the loss of thousands of jobs, in Britain over the past week. One commentator who did touch on the topic, on an official English-language website, said U.K. steel companies were blaming China in order to “lobby for state subsidies and protectionism." He also attacked the BBC for “hysterical … propaganda” in its reporting of China -- adding that “a big job remains to be done to educate the British public about the reality of Chinese society, politics and economics.”
In general, however, China's media, tightly controlled by the state, is clearly under instruction not to let whispers of dissent tarnish the new "Golden Era."