Steady performance from Xi Jinping in UK parliament address as China's PR machine hits London

Supporters organised by Chinese government drown out protestors as president makes speech on first day of state visit

(Number 10/Flickr)
(Number 10/Flickr)

Chinese premier Xi Jinping delivered a balanced speech to the UK parliament yesterday that trumpeted Sino-UK relations, but had a firm undertone of China’s strength.

On the first day of his state visit, Xi spoke of wanting to "lift friendly ties" between the UK and China "to a new height", and said the countries were "increasingly interdependent".

However, to emphasise that China will not be dictated to regarding its politics, Xi also said the country was set on creating a modern legal system "with distinct Chinese features".

While dubbing the palace of Westminster "the mother of all parliaments", Xi reminded UK MPs that in China "the concept of putting people first and following the rule of law emerged in the ancient times".

The UK parliament was the world’s oldest, Xi said, created in the 13th century. But, he pointed out, China’s first laws were created around 2,000 years ago.

That said, Xi made several references to the strong ties between the UK and China and their "profound friendship", citing British support for the Chinese resistance against Japanese aggression in the Second World War.

He also alluded to the two countries’ trade and business potential, calling the UK "the leading offshore renminbi trading centre after Hong Kong", and said the countries "shared deep mutual affection".  

Proceedings got off to a somewhat sticky start for Xi, through his introduction by the UK speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Bercow made reference to Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, praising her as being the "international symbol of the innate human right of freedom".

The issue of human rights in China has dogged Xi’s visit, but only on the UK side. Chinese media has pointedly ignored the protests that accompanied Xi on his reception down The Mall to Buckingham Palace for a state banquet hosted by the queen.

Most chose to focus on the symbolism of Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan being welcomed by senior royals including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Moreover, several UK media outlets have reported that the Chinese embassy in London helped ensure the streets were lined with pro-China supporters to drown out the protestors.

An article in The Guardian says flags and banners were shipped from China and distributed among the thousands of Chinese nationals who turned up to welcome Xi.

Charles Lankester, senior vice president for reputation management at Ruder Finn Asia, told PRWeek Asia Xi’s speech did exactly what it was supposed to: show respect for his British hosts and a willingness to become an active economic partner whilst being unapologetic for the way China conducts domestic affairs.

He added that while the speech was impressive, the pictures told the real story: from a headphone-free David Cameron to "the full regalia of UK Inc – only brought out when it really matters", signalling a clear message that the UK is committed to its relationship with China.

"Team China was also out in force in London, cheering their boss from the pavements. Cynics will say it was only to drown out the Tibetan protestors, which may be partly true," he said.

"My own view? There is a tremendous national spirit and pride amongst the Chinese in 2015. The country has found its stride. Those cheering most likely meant it."

In an op-ed piece for PRWeek Asia, Cindy Tian, regional vice chairman of Edelman Public Affairs in China, said the human rights issue had been handled well so far from a PR perspective.

"The UK government promised that nothing is off the table, while the Chinese side did not appear to make a fuss about the street demonstrations during official activities," Tian said.

"For the Chinese, sensitive issues and differences can be discussed as long as they are not publicly humiliating, done in the right context and set a constructive tone."

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