The British have woken up today to discover just how low their nation has sunk. In a remarkable snub, Chinese President Xi Jinping is reportedly insisting on bringing his own drinking water to a banquet later this month at Buckingham Palace.
He and his wife have also declined to eat the proposed turbot-and-crab starter. Yet turbot is a prized delicacy that, if Wikipedia is any guide, is widely farmed around the world, not least in China. It happens moreover to be one of the Queen’s favorites. Xi’s excuse apparently is that he prefers smoked or cured fish.
Britain’s sense of offended dignity is hardly diminished by the fact that Buckingham Palace prides itself on putting on some of the world’s most sumptuous banquets. (Click here for a glimpse of what you are missing.)
So what is really going on here? As always where the Chinese are concerned, several explanations are possible. None, however, seems particularly flattering to the cravenly indebted nation that the United Kingdom has become.
Xi’s stated antipathy towards British drinking water seems particularly arch. After all, there have been no reports of a similar diplomatic flap about drinking water elsewhere (his visit to the White House last month went off without any culinary or hygienic concerns).
Xi is being deliberately insulting. But why? What we know for sure is that the Chinese have a chip on their shoulder about past slights. Not the least of these has been an age-old Western concern about Chinese hygiene standards. That said, latter-day Chinese leaders are practical people who rarely let past resentments get in the way of diplomacy. They are also often extremely indirect (they have indeed been “cordial” in pressing their culinary requests with Buckingham Palace but then in China it is the mark of a sophisticated insult that it is delivered with a smile).
One possibility is that Beijing may be making a public point about some private, more geopolitically significant, difference, either with the British royal family or the Foreign Office. There is, for instance, the fact that Prince Charles has long criticized China’s record in Tibet. It is not yet clear whether Charles will attend the banquet.
What is remarkable, however, is the evident confidence with which the Chinese have delivered their insult. Even as recently as five years ago they would surely have shrunk from so openly mocking the British establishment. They are now increasingly frank in showing the world they have turned the tables on a once-imperialistic Britain.
A stunning manifestation of British decline came a few months ago when the British government allowed state-owned Chinese interests to take a stake in Hinkley Point C, which is expected to be one of Britain’s largest new nuclear power stations. The irony here is that in the 1950s Britain led the world in introducing nuclear power.
The Hinkley Point deal is emblematic of rapidly growing Chinese financial influence. The U.K. is now, in relative terms, even more heavily dependent on foreign finance than the United States and has become massively indebted to China. The trend has lined many pockets in the London financial district and this helps explain why the attack dogs of the Britain media, who need things explained to them in words of one syllable, have so far had little to say about it. For the most part, they are snoozing soundly in their kennels.