Britain’s newest ambassador to China has gotten off to a rocky start after posting a photo on social media that some viewers interpreted as an endorsement of the hard-line policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Caroline Wilson, appointed in June to lead Britain’s diplomatic mission in Beijing as of this month, posted the photo on Twitter after a meeting with Liu Xiaoming, China’s envoy to Britain.
In the photo, Liu beams with apparent delight as the two hold what appears to be a gifted book, the latest in a series of tomes laying out Xi’s thoughts on governance.
Wilson described the occasion on Twitter as a “valuable meeting with @AmbLiuXiaoMing before heading to Beijing.” Her new subordinates at the British Embassy in Beijing subsequently retweeted the posting.
Valuable meeting with @AmbLiuXiaoMing before heading to Beijing. We can and must work for ambitious UK-China collaboration, on climate, health, trade, engaging on trickier topics too. I look forward to supporting a mature, positive UK-China relationship, in line with UK values. pic.twitter.com/J98XPqhrRI— Caroline Wilson (@CWilson_FCDO) September 16, 2020
As of Friday morning, Wilson’s tweet had generated more than 1,000 comments, and while a handful praised her as “the perfect person for this absolutely pivotal role,” the vast majority considered the posting highly problematic.
“Even Liu XiaoMing didn’t choose to upload this photo,” one commentator wrote, though the Chinese envoy did post several other photos from the meeting. Many others shared the views of a writer who commented, “How could she uphold UK values while holding ‘Xi Jinping Thought’?”
Among the most scathing comments was one from a writer who uploaded a 1938 photo of then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. Another writer said Wilson’s gesture was “no different than holding Mao’s little red book.”
A tweet that had generated almost 500 likes by Friday lodged a more serious charge, that Wilson is too eager to please Xi.
Seriously, how could you be so naive to do such a picture? But not only take the picture, but then be so naive as to share it to the world, putting your nativity on display. Unless of course you only have an audience of one. CCP already has you pegged as a naive pushover.— RichS (@RichScotford) September 17, 2020
Foreign ministry response
A spokesperson from the British foreign ministry defended Wilson’s tweet, telling VOA their country has “a policy of engagement with China and our approach will remain consistent even if difficulties emerge.”
“We must have a calibrated approach and use engagement to raise matters on which the U.K. cannot agree or compromise with China, including on human rights and Hong Kong,” the spokesperson said.
That argument is not persuasive to Roger Garside, a former British diplomat and author of Coming Alive: China After Mao.
“As a former British diplomat myself, who served twice in Beijing, I am appalled by this behavior by our Ambassador-designate to the PRC,” Garside wrote from London in response to VOA’s request for comment. “It goes beyond anything I have witnessed from a British diplomat.”
Garside summed up the reaction to Wilson’s tweet as a “stream of well-deserved outrage.”
Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics in Australia, also responded to a request for comment from his home in Canberra:
“I think the foreign policy establishment is lagging [behind] the political shift that has taken place in Britain this year. It has yet to wake up to the [Communist Party of China]’s ambitions and ruthless modus operandi.”
Hamilton added: “The danger is that instead of advocating Britain’s policies in Beijing, she will end up advocating China’s policies in London.”
Wilson has already attracted “hard looks” from critics of China’s ruling Communist Party within her own party, said Hamilton, the author of Hidden Hand, which warns that the Chinese Communist Party is determined to mold the world in its own image.
He said there has been no public criticism “as far as I know, but I’ve heard indirectly that some have expressed dismay in private.”