Britain plc takes hard sell to China

Blair visit: Prime Minister flies out next week to lead a campaign aimed at updating foggy notions of Britannia
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The Independent Online
ASK MANY Chinese people what they know about Britain, and the stock response is: "London; `wu du' - the foggy capital." Such outdated perceptions of the UK are to be shaken over the next few days by the arrival in China of the Double Sperm Dress, the David Glass experimental theatre ensemble and the staging of a mock British criminal trial. British films, the latest British dance music and an exhibition of the best in modern British architectural design are all part of an image makeover for Britain behind the bamboo curtain.

The "Britain in China" extravaganza will see the biggest spread of British activities on the mainland. Also on show will be Tony Blair, the leader whom President Jiang Zemin last year told: "If there is one thing I have to admire about you, you are a young man." Mr Blair flies in next Tuesday for a five-day swing through Peking, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the first visit for seven years to mainland China by a British prime minister.

The wider events around his visit are designed to banish those foggy Dickensian notions and showcase "the vitality and creativity of present- day Britain", now that Hong Kong is no longer the defining issue in Sino- British relations.

"In China, Britain is Beefeaters, fog and Anne Hathaways's cottage. We are showing a young, creative Britain which is going to surprise and excite the Chinese," said Martin Davidson, head of the British Council in China, which has co-ordinated the programme.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) has thus chosen two shopping malls, in Peking and Shanghai, to show "Primitive Streaks", a collection of 27 dresses including Chromosome Kimono, the Sperm Internal Structure Dress and the Rib Cage Dress. The collection, devised by Helen Storey, the fashion designer, and her sister Kate Storey, an Oxford biologist, represents the first 1,000 hours of human embryonic development. It is safe to say that Chinese shoppers will never have seen anything like it before. Other ICA exhibits will include digital art and small works by Damien Hirst (but no dead cows).

At the sharp end of the programme is British Law Week. A huge contingent of 48 British legal experts, led by the Court of Appeal Judge the Rt Hon Lord Justice Otton, are flying over to take part in seminars with 350 Chinese lawyers, judges, officials and academics on topics ranging through human rights law, professional ethics and policing to commercial law The centrepiece of the week will be the staging in a Peking hotel of a mock British trial of a robbery case, presided over by Lord Justice Otton, but with a jury made up of senior Chinese legal figures. The trial will be a starting point for discussions on the sensitive issue of what China has to do to improve its legal practices.

The British side hopes that Peking will agree to show the trial on national television. A UK documentary on judges and the drama Blind Justice are also scheduled for screening on Chinese television, to educate a wider public about the differences between a Western judicial system and legal practices in a one-party state.

Culturally, ordinary Chinese people in Peking and Shanghai will get the chance to see three British films through the East-West Film Festival. Elizabeth the First, Sliding Doors and Victory will show in public cinemas in Peking and Shanghai. In a letter to the British organiser, Mr Blair wrote: "I am sure that by sharing our culture in this way, we can build a new, richer understanding between people in Britain and China."

In Peking, the David Glass theatre group is putting on The Hansel Gretel Machine, "a piece told through mesmeric physicality and hypnotic visual tableaux woven together in a soundscape of infant noises and loud music", but also unsuitable for children under the age of 12. The production, "an extraordinary journey into the heart of childhood", is likely to prove a hit among the city's student audience, who have little chance to see experimental and innovative foreign theatre.