A ROYAL BLUNDER
To his Chinese hosts, the remarks appeared to be both tactless and ill-timed. While chatting—privately—last week with a group of Scottish students in the central city of Xian, the Duke of Edinburgh de-
scribed Peking as “ghastly.” He added that if they stayed in China too long, the students would go home “with slitty eyes.” His comments, made on the fourth day of Queen Elizabeth’s seven-day state visit to China, did not remain private for long. As British newspapers headlined his indiscretion, the incident almost overshadowed the historic first visit by a reigning British monarch to the world’s most populous nation.
Hectic: The regal visit was designed to formalize China’s re-entry into mainstream world politics after decades of revolution, upheaval and isolation. British officials also seized on the tour as an opportunity to repair their country’s historically hostile relations with China. At the same time, the British are seeking a larger share of the $55 billion in goods that China imports each year. As the royal couple left for Hong Kong after six
hectic days of sightseeing and stately functions, the visit had largely met official expectations—despite the duke’s blunder. While British newspapers carried screaming headlines of his remarks, most observers concluded that it would not cause lasting damage to Sino-British relations.
Still, for two nervous days it appeared that Prince Philip might have severely damaged an otherwise flawless royal performance. One Chinese official said that he was amazed at the duke’s remark. “I can’t believe he would have said such a thing,” he declared. “Would he not have realized the consequences?” And a British offi-
cial accompanying the royal couple told reporters: “It has certainly taken the edge off what has been a very successful visit.” China’s tightly controlled press made no mention of the incident. But the British press—espe-
cially London’s mass-circulation tabloids—revelled in the controversy. “The great wally of China,” headlined the Daily Mirror, using contemporary English idiom for “idiot.” “The duke gets it all wong,” wrote the Sun over a retouched photograph depicting the royal consort with slanted eyes.
Hay: The irreverent London dailies listed previous verbal indiscretions by the 65-year old duke, a former Royal Navy officer known for his occasional coarse humor. In the past few years the prince has managed to offend British industrialists by telling them to “take their fingers out,” and British women by saying that “they can’t
cook.” He angered British horse-lovers by saying of his daughter, Princess Anne, that “if it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.” Once, upon hearing that the residents of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific had a
population growth of five per cent a year, he said, “They must be out of their minds.”
Riches: But his comments in China could have had far more serious consequences. Relations between the British and Chinese have only recently begun to improve after generations of suspicion and hostility, broken only by the Second World War years, when the two countries were allied against Japan. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s great-greatgrandmother, Victoria, Britain led other Western nations in robbing many of the riches of the weak and decadent Middle Kingdom, as China is traditionally known. In 1840 Britain sent a fleet to force the Chinese to open their ports to the lucrative opium trade from India and permit the export of tea and silk. A few years later, the British again attacked Chinain league with the French—as a reprisal
for the seizure of a British-registered pirate ship. And in 1860 an AngloFrench force sacked and destroyed Peking’s fabled Summer Palace.
Western traders followed the troops, attracted by the prospect of large profits from trade. They obtained British protection for an autonomous settlement in Shanghai, China’s principal port, and established their own administration, police and law courts. When Chinese resentment of the foreigners erupted in the so-called Boxer Rebellion (named after a nationalist sect whose members believed in the invulnerability of a mysterious boxing art) in 1900, Britain organized forces from
the main European countries—as well as Japan and the United States—to defeat the insurgents.
After a brief period of harmony during the Second World War, Sino-British relations deteriorated again. They broke down even more after the 1949 Communist takeover by Mao Tse-tung, who drove Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his followers into exile on the island of Taiwan. Then, in 1967, at the height of the so-called Cultural Revolution, the Chinese took revenge for earlier humiliations when fanatical Red Guards pillaged and burned the British legation in Peking. They also roughed up the British chargé d’affaires, forcing him to bow to a jeering crowd.
Vivid: But last week’s landmark visit by the British royals was generally interpreted as a vivid indication of SinoBritish reconciliation. As well, it demonstrated the extent to which China has abandoned its traditional dislike and mistrust of Westerners. China’s opening to the West began in earnest in 1972 when Mao stunned the world by receiving President Richard Nixon as an official visitor and moved toward restoring diplomatic relations with the United States. Since Mao’s death 10 years ago the process has accelerated. Now, most Western nations have full diplomatic relations with a Chinese leadership sharply at odds with the other great world Communist power, the Soviet Union, and no longer totally wedded to Marxist economic and political dogma.
The most significant indication of China’s determination to join the world community was its negotiations with Britain over the return of the small but prosperous island colony of Hong Kong to mainland rule. Under the terms of a late-19th-century treaty with Britain, Hong Kong was due to revert to the People’s Republic in 1997—and the Chinese could merely have waited until then and taken it. But they preferred to reach a negotiated agreement with the British. And when the deal was signed in 1984, the way was clear for the Queen to accept Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s repeated invitations to visit.
Hero: In its current long march toward world acceptability, the Chinese also regard Canada as a friendly nation that helped smooth the way back from isolationism. In 1970, while Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister, Ottawa became the first important Western capital to establish full diplomatic links with Peking. But a strong tie between the two countries already existed. It had been forged in the late 1930s when a Canadian surgeon, Dr. Norman Bethune of Gravenhurst, Ont., worked in China during the Japanese invasion which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War. Bethune
died on active service in 1939 of an infection contracted while he was performing field surgery. His work made him a national hero for the Chinese, many of whom can still cite word for word Mao’s essay on Bethune’s “selfless revolutionary spirit.”
Until Prince Philip’s remarks cast a pall over it, the tour was a model of civility. The Queen charmed her Chinese hosts, ably using chopsticks to eat sea slugs and hiking gamely along the Great Wall of China—all with a gracious smile. For their part, her Chinese hosts provided a truly royal reception. On hand to greet the Queen when she stepped out of her British Airways Tristar at Shoudu Airport near Peking on Oct. 12 was a small but influential delegation headed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian. The delegation’s size, and the somewhat muted airport reception that followed, was a sign of Chinese politeness—recognition that dignitaries suffering from jet lag should not be subjected to too much pomp and ceremony on the tarmac. Then, a waiting black Mercedes-Benz limousine delivered the British monarch and her husband to state guesthouse No. 18 on the Diaoyutai estate— a former fishing resort of Chinese emperors.
Elegant: The Queen’s accommodation was even more elegant than that provided for the state visits of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Chinese craftsmen had labored for months before the Queen’s arrival to restore the dwelling, which had fallen from its once-imperial splendor into disrepair. That renovation had posed difficulties for the Chinese authorities. For one thing, trained craftsmen capable of lacquering wood or working with gold leaf—crafts that have not been much in demand since the Communists took power—had to be found.
Following her arrival, the Queen and her retinue maintained a demanding, hectic schedule. On Monday, the day after her arrival, she attended the Chinese government’s official welcoming ceremonies in Peking’s vast Tiananmen Square, which was decorated with a sea of red flags and a few Union Jacks. After sightseeing for the rest of the day and visiting Peking’s Forbidden City, where Chinese emperors lived from the 15th century until 1911, when China became a republic, she was the guest of honor at a state banquet. There, in Peking’s Great Hall of the People, the Queen used chopsticks with considerable aplomb—the result of intensive training in the months leading up to the tour—to dine on such Chinese delicacies as shark’s fin and mandarin fish. And in her address she praised the Sino-British negotiations
that had resolved the future of Hong Kong. She added, “Today, relations between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China are closer than they have ever been.”
Tower: The following day the Queen met China’s diminutive leader, chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Advisory Committee Deng, in the Joint Happiness Garden. The 82-year-old Deng, the son of impoverished peasants from Sichuan province, said through a translator, “Thank you for coming to see an old man such as me.” As they talked in a tiny pavilion on the Diaoyutai grounds, he recalled that
when he was a student in Paris in the 1920s he went to the top of the Eiffel Tower hoping to be able to catch a glimpse of England. “I went up the tower twice, but the weather was bad, so I could not see it,” the old revolutionary told the British monarch. The Queen replied that even on a clear day she doubted that Deng would have been able to see that far.
Cigarette: Diplomats had previously expressed concern that even in the Queen’s presence the earthy Deng might spit and chain-smoke cigarettes, as is his custom. But the Chinese leader refrained, and only lit a cigarette at the conclusion of his luncheon with the Queen and the duke.
Then, wearing sensible rubber-soled pumps, the Queen set off with her husband for an essential stop on any foreigner’s visit to China: the Great Wall. There, the Queen walked along a stretch of the 2,400-km structure, built during the 4th century B.C. to keep out the
Hsiung-nu, or Mongols. Instead of turning back after walking 300 m to the first tower, as originally planned, she pressed on for another 100 m up a steep slope, followed by her husband, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe and a retinue of 40 obviously tiring Chinese and British officials. Britain’s Independent Television News, which had installed a satellite broadcasting dish on the wall, relayed the Queen’s walk live to Britain, where during the morning hours millions of viewers watched the broadcast. After the ascent, the Queen showed few signs of strain.
But by midweek the rigors of the trip
were beginning to show on her entourage. In Shanghai, her normally imperturbable press secretary, Michael Shea, displayed anger while making repeated attempts to stop overzealous Chinese security men from blocking the view of the many British press photographers covering the tour. Members of the palace press corps had been complaining throughout the tour that they were being kept as much as 200 m from the Queen, while all the closeup positions were reserved for the TV cameras. At one point during the Shanghai visit, Shea began shouting and gesticulating at Chinese security guards, eventually wrestling one to the ground—in view of millions of TV viewers around the world—as he tried to get better positions for the photographers.
But that incident paled in comparison to the consternation surrounding the duke’s contentious comments. During a visit by the Queen and prince to Xian, the site of the 2,000-year-old tomb
of Emperor Qin, the duke made his controversial remarks to a small group of students from Edinburgh University, of which he is the chancellor. According to one of the students, he joked, “If you stay here much longer, you will go back with slitty eyes.”
When reporters confronted Shea, he was visibly flustered. “It is a wellknown physiological fact that people’s eyes in different parts of the world are different,” he said. “But so what? I have sort of roundish eyes.” Shea said that he could not confirm or deny that the duke had used the terms “slitty eyes,” but a member of the royal household confirmed later that the quote was accurate. The spokesman added: “It was a joke, an off-the-cuff remark meaning nothing. It is the same as saying if you go to America you come back with an American accent. This sort of [controversy] makes me want to scream.”
Fair: The affair did not impede the more serious business of the tourselling British products to the Chinese. While the Queen and the duke continued their marathon tour, the 5,769-ton royal yacht Britannia was anchored in the Yangtze River at Shanghai as a floating British trade fair. Highpowered representatives of Britain’s top industrial firms, from Rolls-Royce Ltd. to Imperial Chemical Industries pic, presented displays of their products in an effort to obtain a share of the vast Chinese import market. By the time the Queen herself boarded Britannia at midweek to host a lavish banquet for Chinese President Li Xiannian and 60 other leading political and industrial personalities, import agreements worth several hundred million dollars had been discussed, involving products ranging from baby foods to computerized telephone exchanges.
In the southwestern city of Kunming, on the day after the incident, a reporter asked the duke if he thought he might have been too “blunt” in his remarks to the Scottish students. The prince replied with a smile that he thought the students had been “tactless” in repeating his comments to the press. Throughout the day he enthusiastically praised every aspect of the visit to Kunming and lavished compliments on his hosts, their city and their country. He even had a friendly comment for the palace press corps. After he ushered the Queen into a position where she could pose for them with a group of brightly dressed dancers, a photographer called out, “Thank you, sir.” Replied the duke: “Well, I’ve got to do something right some time.”