Written by Kerry Brown.

It seems pretty certain that some time in 2015 President Xi Jinping will make his first visit to the UK as Head of State. Stellar diplomatic careers are made on events like this, and no doubt, deep in the bowels of the respective foreign ministries in London and Beijing the arguments are starting over weighty matters like who gets to sit on the same table with him at the state dinner, or who gets precious invites to the various events he might be involved in.

One thing is for sure: This will not be a relaxing visit. President Jiang Zemin’s visit in 1999 was heralded with great pomp and bragging, but is probably most remembered now for the perceived snub by Prince Charles who refused to attend the final dinner at the Chinese embassy, reportedly because of his passionate support for Tibetan causes. Hu Jintao’s visit a few years later in the mid 2000s was memorable only for being so unmemorable – Hu was not the sort of person to create vivid impressions, and he came and went with barely a spark of public recognition.

Xi might be different. He is a younger, more ambitious person than at least Hu, and China is a bigger player now. His visit to Australia last November saw him make a number of bold statements politely chiding locals for not being imaginative and bold enough in their vision of relations with their largest trading partner. The subtext here was clear – Xi was asking for at least some daylight between the Australian and American positions and some autonomy in Canberra’s foreign policy thinking.

Relations with the UK though, for historic and other reasons, are thornier. Hong Kong will doubtless loom large. The UK will want to hide its impotence over the future destiny of the Special Administrative Region, and China will need to convey its disinterest in receiving British wisdom on this subject as politely as it can. On investment and trade, of course, there will be plenty to discuss. Here at least, the UK has had some successes.

One of the interesting possibilities of this visit is whether Prime Minister Cameron will rediscover his moral compass. He gently berated visiting Premier Wen Jiabao when in the UK a few years ago about human rights, and famously met the Dalai Lama in London in mid-2012, effectively icing bilateral political relations for a year or so. But he evidently checked his compass into customs when he visited Beijing in late 2013. That was a visit solely about trade. Are we due another bout of public displays of moral hauteur in front of Xi? One imagines he might give an earthier response than the polite, gentle Mr Wen did.

One question I have thought about a lot in the last few months has been what the function of foreign services and their posts are. In `What’s Wrong with Diplomacy’ (out in Penguin in early March) I argue that they need to have a greater public intellectual impact, and become more akin to think tanks. At the moment, they remain largely introspective and overly secretive. In the era of Wiki-leaks this is neither necessary nor sustainable. They may as well open their doors much more.

State visits like that of Xi do offer at least some chance for exchanges of ideas and getting two countries engaged and interested in each other. The trouble is that they usually only involve a small constituency of people – the big businessmen looking for deals, politicians, and then a grim medley of retired ambassadors dispensing their sclerotic, pompous wisdom to a, usually rightly, indifferent world. The last thing that they ever seem to do is recharge or reset public debate. For the UK, more’s the pity, the pomp we strangely say we are so good at often clears away any chance of substance or real intellectual exchange.

Xi Jinping has stated in his interview last year with a Russian journalist that he had little time these days for private interests and hobbies, but he did still enjoy reading. Unusually, unlike his predecessor, he does seem interested in ideas. It would be good for this visit to be more about ideas, and about involving people who actually have ideas, rather than the template of the past, where nervous officials wanted to make sure, on both sides, that there was no real space for the expression of these. That might mean excluding or disbarring some of the grand old names that have invariably appeared on guest lists and functions in the last few years at high level Chinese visits to the UK. But so be it. As Mr Xi is proving with his own anti-corruption campaign, sometimes it is useful to clear away dead wood. And the wood around the UK China relationship over the last few years has been particularly dead, and well in need of shifting out of the way.

Kerry Brown is Professor and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and Associate Fellow of Chatham House, London. His `What’s Wrong with Diplomacy’ will be published in early March by Penguin. 

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