To the Chinese she is Ying Guo Nu Wang—the English Country Female King. To the rest of the world she is Queen Elizabeth II of Britain—and Canada. And days before her British Airways Tristar was due to touch down at Peking international airport on the evening of Oct. 12, the Communist leaders of the world’s most populous nation were barely maintaining their nei bu—the calm and inscrutable outward appearance that the Chinese customarily present to foreigners. For the government of 82-yearold Deng Xiaoping, the six-day visit of the British monarch was momentous, setting the seal on China’s entry into the mainstream of the modern world after decades of revolution, upheaval and sullen isolation. For the British, it represented an opportunity to corner their share of a market worth $55 billion in 1985.
The visit—the first ever by a British monarch to China—was five years in the making.
Deng extended his invitation to Buckingham Palace three times before it was accepted last year. One major reason for the palace’s initial reluctance was the unfinished state of negotiations over the future of Hong Kong, the tiny but prosperous British island colony just off the Chinese mainland. Under a leasing agreement, Britain was due to return it to Chinese rule in 1997, but the circumstances and safeguards for the exchange had yet to be agreed upon. When an agreement was finally signed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Deng in 1984, the way was cleared for the Queen to go.
Their invitation accepted, the normally austere Chinese leaders set about to create an atmosphere of splendor for their royal guest reminiscent of the days of China’s own monarchy, when the last Dowager Empress, Tz’u-Hsi (1835-1908), squandered an entire naval budget to build herself a summer palace. Elderly craftsmen, ignored for almost 40 years, were brought out of retirement or banishment to refurbish a former fishing resort of the emperor, now officially styled Number 18 Guest House, where
the Queen and Prince Philip will stay while in Peking. Since the Communist takeover in 1949, when the country turned its back on such luxuries, the Chinese have had little need of the services of men who know how to laquer wood to a glassy perfection or apply gold leaf to the subtle curves of an inlaid marble chair. Nor has there been much demand for the makers of fine
carpets, such as those engaged to weave a huge silken rug, featuring an entwined dragon and phoenix, for the royal bedroom.
The Queen’s Chinese hosts are also expected to unveil an official RollsRoyce to carry her around Peking and to the Great Wall, an hour and a half’s drive away. The People’s Republic bought the Rolls in 1958, but so far it has not been seen in the streets. Another, nongovernmental, Rolls was awaiting the Queen in Shanghai—the property of a patriotic Hong Kong millionaire who had it especially shipped to the mainland for the Queen’s convenience.
The British royals have made a reciprocal effort to ensure the success of the visit. For the
past few weeks, palace sources told Maclean's, the Queen has been taking lessons from an expert in the tricky art of handling chopsticks. And when she reaches Shanghai the Queen will return some of the lavish Chinese hospitality when her 5,769-ton royal yacht Britannia—one of the world’s most luxurious private vessels—is the scene of a banquet for 60 of China’s top leaders.
But there is another reason for Britannia’s presence: it is also on hand as a floating trade fair, and while the Queen tours the vast hinterland, dozens of leading British businessmen,
representing most major companies in the United Kingdom, will be aboard to show their wares to the Chinese and attempt to land contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With the announcement by Chinese officials only last week of a drive to develop a new generation of space satellites for industry and defence, the timing for Britannia’s arrival was propitious. Said one British trade official, as he prepared to fly to China last week: “With any luck, the ink on a lot of those contracts will be dry by the time Her Majesty and her Chinese guests sit down to dinner on board.”
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