The Chinese media continue the build-up to Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK. For a selection of video reports, click here.
The third video, which I would embed if I could, is particularly interesting, listing as it does the schedule for the visit and a proportion of the official protocol involved. Of particular interest is the pageantry-to-serious business ratio, which seems to be a good bit higher than for many official visits.
There’s a very good reason for this. Namely, that Britain only has two sources of income left: its accomodating financial laws and its Gross National Quaintness. Clearly they intend to push both of them as far as they can during this visit. Note Cameron’s comment about Britain having an “open” economy in the second video; we won’t ask you where your money came from, huddled tuhao masses.
Moreover, contrary to what you might expect from a (theoretically) communist country, the Chinese have no principled objection to monarchy. From a Western point of view, wherein there is a tendency to rank foreign countries based on how closely they stick to values that we approve of (democracy, human rights), this may appear unexpected. However, the Beijing consensus is not merely a matter of international posturing: they genuinely could not care less how other countries run themselves. If the British want a monarchy and it looks cool on tv, then sure, why not? Let’s have lots of pictures of gold carriages and Kate Middleton on the evening news. It’s more fun than Li Keqiang visiting a fertilizer plant in Anhui.
Moreover, the British diplomatic corps has had ample chance to make note of this. A few years back David Cameron did a live chat on Weibo, and rather than asking about trade relationships, studying in the UK or the future of NATO, netizens by and large just wanted to know when the next series of Sherlock would be out in Chinese, and whether Cameron could do anything to speed up the process.
So in other words, the protocol here is directed not so much at Xi himself, although obviously it would be embarrasing if Britain was not able to give him as grand a welcome as other countries have taken to providing, as for the millions of Chinese citizens sitting at home watching on the evening news. It is effectively a display of Britain’s soft power superpower status.
What’s more, we’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, everyone was blown away by the overwhelming Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, but it was also a moment of reckoning for the British. They were scheduled to host the Games in 2012, and knew full well that they would never be able to match the spectacle produced by the Chinese. (It’s not just a matter of cash either; if you tell 15,000 British students that they have to spend their whole summer researsing cultural dances, their reply will begin and end with an F.)
So they decided to take another route. Not having a hope in hell of matching Zhang Yimou’s show, instead they had Daniel Craig push the Queen out of a helicopter while Mr. Bean played the piano. It was arguably just as effective as the Chinese production, and even – in an understated, British sort of way – managed to subvert it: “You used 15,000 dancers to create a media sensation? Well we can’t do that, but we can achieve much the same thing by means of Daniel Craig and a hairy stuntman wearing a dress and a tiara.”
Of course, none of this actually means anything until it translates into concrete economic and political gains…