Written by Jackie Sheehan.

In the run-up to Prince William’s visit to China, possibly too much was made of the delicate diplomacy that would be required of him to make a success of the trip. Really, all he had to do to have the visit judged more successful than the preceding ones of his father (to the Hong Kong handover) and grandfather was to avoid making overtly racist statements or unflattering remarks about senior CCP leaders in public, and he would be home free.

The timing of the trip offered cover for unfortunate incidents, should it have been needed, with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) overlapping with it, and the National People’s Congress opening the day after it ended, more than enough to keep the domestic media fully occupied. But in most cases they judged it a success, terming it evidence of Britain’s wish to continue rebuilding a bilateral relationship strained by David Cameron’s 2012 meeting with the Dalai Lama, and then, just as memory faded of that, by China’s refusal to allow a parliamentary delegation to visit Hong Kong during last autumn’s Occupy movement. The Hong Kong issue hasn’t gone away, but more of that later.

During David Cameron’s last visit to China, in December 2013, Britain was famously termed an old European country only of interest to tourists and students, a description which has a good deal of truth in it even though the Global Times says it does. But there’s a decent living to be made out of tourism and education, reflected in the Prince’s presence with Chinese students returned from the UK at the British Council Global Alumni Awards and at the Shanghai premiere of Paddington. With his stereotypically traditional British attire and endearing self-deprecation, Prince William quite outshone the famous bear on this occasion. If Shenzhen TV was sniffy about the royal family as a “shadow of the British past”, the Downton-loving Chinese public rather took to William for exactly the same reason.

Like many men before them facing a potentially awkward conversation, William and Xi Jinping found common ground in football. It’s actually not an uncontroversial topic in China, given the “black whistle” issue of rampant corruption and match-fixing and the rage sometimes expressed by Chinese fans at the national men’s team’s suspiciously calibrated displays of ineptitude. Xi Jinping’s aim is famously for China to qualify for a World Cup, host a World Cup, and win a World Cup, and if the first two are definitely achievable, on the third, possibly William’s advice as an Aston Villa fan and thus a man accustomed to disappointment was helpful.

William found time for another all-but-lost cause besides Villa in a visit to one of Beijing’s few surviving hutongs, restored with help from one of his father’s charities, and to a project for children with physical disabilities, an area of work which needs all the profile it can get, as China’s Paralympic successes are taking so long to trickle down significant benefits to most Chinese with disabilities.

The most anticipated stop on the tour was the final one, at an elephant sanctuary in Xishuangbanna where William highlighted the issue of ivory poaching and its threat to the survival of elephants in the wild. His description of wildlife poaching and trafficking in endangered species as a “vicious form of criminality” was widely applauded by China’s netizens, and it was not his place to raise more pointed questions about the sheer scale of the importation into China of illegal ivory from African elephants and rumours of its transport on Xi Jinping’s official plane at the end of his state visit to Tanzania last November.

China’s one-year ban on ivory carving imports, imposed the day before William arrived in China, is only intended as a holding measure, and will of itself do little to reverse the harm done by the disastrous 2008 decision to release a stockpile of legally acquired ivory gradually into the Chinese market. Rather than tapering off demand, it has increased among China’s newly rich and status conscious, while the availability of legal supplies has blurred consumers’ understanding of the fact that tusks can only be taken from dead elephants.

Underlying nearly all commentary, Chinese and British, on the royal visit has been an assumption that Britain still has some distance to make up before it can expect a normal relationship, with normal business benefits, with Beijing. But actually, for a country apparently on the Dalai Lama-hosting, internal affairs-interfering naughty step since mid-2012, Britain saw record levels of trade with China in 2013 and again in 2014.

It’s understandable that national governments fear their country’s companies being shut out of the world’s second-largest economy. But even in a case like the Norwegian salmon industry, largely cut off from rapidly growing demand in China since Liu Xiaobo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, the overall economic impact has been described as a “marginal effect, mostly psychological”. The pattern in recent years suggests a highly successful effort by China to use exaggerated fears of the possible consequences of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” (a genius phrase, as how can anyone prove that someone else’s feelings have not been hurt?) to gain disproportionate benefits.

In this light, the only surprising thing about Britain’s becoming a founder member of China’s new World Bank and ADB rival, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), is that the US actually expressed concern about “a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power.” France, German and Italy have since piled in behind Britain, and Australia is reported to be reconsidering its original decision not to join the AIIB.

David Cameron’s response to questions was a typically airy but uncorroborated denial that the AIIB decision was “part of a pattern of cosying up to Beijing too much.”  If he wants to convince many people of this, the opportunity will come when he responds to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report last week assessing Hong Kong 30 years on from the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This report insists that his government “can and should take an unambiguous position on its expectations for constitutional reform” in Hong Kong, where autonomy is “coming under pressure” and a “troubling pattern has begun to emerge” in the handling of civil liberties and democratization.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork and a CPI Senior Fellow. Image Credit: CC by Vee de Rodgers/Flickr.

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