To Premier Li Keqiang’s undisguised delight at his press conference with David Cameron, he was asked a question in Mandarin by the BBC’s China Editor Carrie Gracie. To most of the Brits, the only intelligible words were “Nick Clegg” – which produced, as they often do, laughs from everyone, including the British Prime Minister.
Possibly because of the sheer unexpectedness of a British journalist fluent in a foreign language, the simultaneous translation halted after Ms Gracie’s question, which touched on human rights. While Premier Li was speaking, Cameron was therefore obliged to alternate between staring at his Chinese counterpart with an intensely concentrated frown and gazing visionarily into the middle distance.
Luckily two excellent Chinese interpreters stepped in, though oddly the man translating Cameron’s remarks, while speaking very fast, took longer than the PM himself. Was he laying on the praise for China even more thickly than Cameron was? If that were possible. “Ours is truly a partnership for growth, reform and innovation,” the PM gushed.
Equally lyrical about the trading relationship between China and UK, Premier Li promised that “together we will create huge energy”. It was not immediately clear whether this was metaphorical. Or, more likely, a reference to the People’s Republic’s vast stake in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
Either way he probably felt a bit like an absentee landlord looking over his new property, given China’s multi-billion investment into the UK. More investment, David Cameron said proudly, in the past 18 months than in the previous 30 years.
We were in the Locarno rooms at the Foreign Office, a gaudily chandeliered and spectacularly high-ceilinged suite which is presumably thought to be the nearest – if wholly inadequate – Whitehall equivalent of the Great Hall of the People. (Li presumably didn’t have to be told that the name is indelibly linked with dance halls of the 1950s.) In another Locarno room, crowds of Chinese and British businessmen, the latter almost salivating, queued up to sign contracts under the watchful of eyes of ministers like Vince Cable and Patrick McLoughlin.
Asked about the Chinese Ambassador’s remark that whereas Beijing used to think of “Britain, France and Germany” it now thought of “Germany, France and Britain,” Premier Li implied that British anxiety about this was like when he was a governor and he wanted his province to be best at everything. But there was an old Chinese proverb which said “wherever you are, sing the local song”. So he was happy to wish Britain to be best. Possible sub-text: “Get over it.”
Unhelpfully to Tory Eurosceptics he was unequivocally in favour of greater “European integration”. And this, he declared pointedly, he said everywhere he went. And he was also in favour of a “united United Kingdom” – while adding hastily that “I respect your choice”. He can hardly be nervous about the effect of an independent Scotland on Tibet. But Alex Salmond may worry about missing out on those billions.
But if Li did feel like the country’s new owner, he was quite good at disguising it. Li does not fit the stereotype of stern Chinese leaders. He has a ready smile, gesticulates a lot and rather dominated the press conference. He mentioned several times his pleasure at meeting “friends in the British press”. He is, well, scrutable.