Britains 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 Britains diplomatic mission in Beijing as of this month, posted the photo on Twitter after a meeting with Liu Xiaoming, Chinas 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 Xis 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.
As of Friday morning, Wilsons 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 didnt 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 Wilsons gesture was “no different than holding Maos 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.
Foreign ministry response
A spokesperson from the British foreign ministry defended Wilsons 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 whose latest book, Coming Alive: China After Mao, focuses on contemporary China.
“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 VOAs request for comment. “It goes beyond anything I have witnessed from a British diplomat.”
Garside summed up the reaction to Wilsons 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 Britains policies in Beijing, she will end up advocating Chinas policies in London.”
Wilson has already attracted “hard looks” from critics of Chinas 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 Ive heard indirectly that some have expressed dismay in private.”