Prince William’s visit to China: Mind the (cultural) gap

by Yiming Yu, Chinese student of BA International Relations at King’s College London.

After associating with the latest Oscar Best Actor Award Winner Eddie Redmayne as his classmate in Eton College last week, Prince William’s name finally appeared in politics this time. Last Thursday, he arrived in Japan to start his visit to Asia. In Japan, he experienced local culture and would visit areas destroyed by the 2011 tsunami and meet with its survivors. However before he left Britain, it seemed that the media – at least the British media, focused more on his second stop: China.

Arriving at Beijing on Sunday night, Prince William has become the first member of the British Royal Family to officially visit mainland China since 1986. This visit is regarded by many media outlets as his most significant overseas visit. Besides meeting Xi Jinping and other senior figures, one key aim for Prince William is to act as representative for the United Kingdom to attend GREAT Festival of Creativity. This will start the year of culture exchanges and promote British creative industries in China. This is interpreted as British investors’ confidence in Chinese economy which is slowing down its growth. Indeed, this is a business event, but cultural dimension of William’s visit deserves more attention.

British culture has witnessed increasing popularity in China. British afternoon tea is promoted by many high-end restaurants, and British TV series such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock have attracted a large number of loyal fans. However, cultural gaps still exist and there are many lessons Prince William could learn from his grandfather, Prince Philip, and his father, Prince Charles. When Prince Philip accompanied Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to China in 1984, he was recorded to have described Beijing as “ghastly” and told a group of British students that if they stayed in China any longer, they would all be slitty-eyed. As for Prince Charles, after attending the ceremony of handover Hong Kong to China in 1997, he described the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin as an “appalling old waxwork”. In the subsequent period, Prince Charles also tried to avoid meeting with Chinese government officials although he and his wife Camilla attended celebration of Chinese New Year in Chinatown in London this year. In both BBC’s commentaries after the news of Prince William’s visit plan was reported and Prince William arrived in China, the absence of Prince Charles was highlighted. It could be regarded that it is his job to visit cultural heritage sites such as Hutongs in Beijing, to fulfill the role of his father who established foundations in China to restore these sites.

Apart from such cultural stereotypes, the cultural gap also includes human rights (if we take human rights as a part of culture temporarily). One reason why Prince Charles is not welcomed by the Chinese is his relationship with Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism while viewed by the Chinese authorities as the leader of Tibetan separatists. Like other western liberal democratic states, the human rights issue is always where Britain and China are at odds sometimes. However, Britain’s diplomacy about human rights is more complicated than other states due to relations with its former colony: Hong Kong. The struggle for true democracy, which was condemned by Beijing as a “color revolution”, inevitably involved discussion on Britain’s role because of the commitment to “one country, two systems” in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on handover of Hong Kong. Coincidentally, just several days before Prince William landed in Beijing, the British government published a six-monthly report to parliament, stressing its commitment to rights and freedom enshrined in Basic Law of Hong Kong as well as the Declaration and the validity of the Declaration despite Chinese authority claiming that the Declaration had been void. When Prince William arrived, there were a lot of Chinese Internet users sarcastically commenting that Hong Kong could ask for help. For now, it is curious that only the Hong Kong authorities instead of central government responded to this report. Still, it could be expected that with growing tension between pro-democracy protesters and alliance of Hong Kong authorities and Beijing, this problem might not cease to exist even when William takes the throne. Britain may face more conflicts with China on the issue of human rights in the future.

Fortunately, it seems that human rights is not included in Prince William’s agenda and it is unlikely that he will cause controversies on this topic. Nevertheless, his third goal of wildlife protection, a key reason for his visit to China, may arouse controversies. On the last day of his visit, Prince William will go to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province to visit Wild Elephant Valley, a tourist attraction established in a nature reserve for some of last remaining wild elephants in China. This park assumes the responsibility to protect the species, however it has been reported that some elephants had which their tusks sawn off are trained to perform routines up to four times a day to entertain tourists. In order to counter this, Xinhua News, the official media in China commented that the Prince would learn about China’s commitment and effort to protect wildlife. Interestingly and coincidentally, before William started his visit, China, which is alleged to be a source for thirst of ivory, imposed a one-year ban on illegal ivory trade after conservationists including Sir David Attenborough sent an open letter to Xi Jinping calling for complete ban on ivory trade. Obviously, one-year ban fell short of many expectations and was criticized by UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency as “window dressing”. Prince William may face the dilemma where he would be criticized by conservationists if he did not point out Chinese government’s inadequate effort to ban ivory trade, however he may displease the Chinese government by raising this issue.

At least for now, Prince William is a welcome figure in China. His wishes on Chinese New Year spoken in Chinese received a lot of praise among China’s Internet users and his marriage, as well as his son, Prince George, attract much attention. From his enthusiasm to this visit, it could be seen that he is willing to act as a diplomat to improve the China-UK relationship. However, with so many cultural gaps, as the Daily Telegraph commented, it is better for Prince William to “tread carefully”.


Daily Telegraph
BBC/BBC Chinese
Sky News


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