Diplomacy is full of awkward moments. But the fact that an English prince met yesterday with “red princeling” Xi Jinping, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the President of the People’s Republic of China, is still, if you think about it, strikingly odd. What could the symbolic heir to the British empire and China’s avowedly anti-imperialist new leader have to talk about?
Not history. Since coming to power in 2013, Xi has spoken at length about the great “rejuvenation” of the nation. The message is that after suffering centuries of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, the country, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, is once again on the rise. So while Prince William toured Beijing’s Forbidden City, his handlers probably did not mention the fact that the British burned the city’s other great palace, Yuanmingyuan, on Oct. 18, 1860. Or that Anglo-French forces looted its treasures.
Nor can they talk about Hong Kong. The fate of the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 might be old news by now, if not for the months-long protests that shuttered parts of the Chinese Special Administrative Region last fall. Many, including the protesters themselves, say the movement was a grassroots push for genuine universal suffrage. Beijing blamed “hostile foreign forces.” A British delegation sent to look into the protests was turned away, prompting a rather pointed editorial from the Chinese ambassador to the U.K.
And they certainly can’t talk about family. Prince William and Xi Jinping are both royalty in their own right — the former, a Windsor, the latter, a scion of China’s red royalty. (Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was a contemporary of Mao and a hero of the Long March.) But don’t expect either to bring that up. Xi rarely trades on his pedigree, at least publicly, preferring to cast himself as just another cadre. And William, if he’s wise, will know that royalty is a touchy subject in China, not least because his grandfather, the racist-gaffe-prone Prince Philip once warned an exchange student about “slitty-eyed” Chinese, and his father Prince Charles once called China’s leaders “appalling old waxworks.”
It’s safe to guess that absolutely none of this came up during the first two days of the tightly choreographed three-day tour. After landing in Shanghai, the prince opened a festival and met with business leaders including Alibaba’s Jack Ma. On Tuesday, local time, he watched Chinese students play soccer (football) to mark the addition of the sport to the Chinese curriculum. “I also gather you’re quite a football fan,” the prince reportedly told the President. On Tuesday evening, he will take in the premiere of Paddington, a kid’s film about a stuffed bear.
So how did young Prince William do? “Defter diplomat than Dad,” judged NBC.
And that, really, is all there is to say.