China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China Takes Aim at UK Ambassador Over Media Freedom Post

British Ambassador to China Caroline Wilson learns the hard way how prickly Beijing is, even to sympathetic criticisms.

China Takes Aim at UK Ambassador Over Media Freedom Post

British Ambassador to China Caroline Wilson and Minister for Culture and Tourism Hu Heping

Credit: Twitter/ Caroline Wilson

Caroline Wilson, Britain’s ambassador to China, had the temerity to suggest in an online article earlier this month that not only does the foreign media not hate China, but that it plays an important role in safeguarding vulnerable voices within China.

In her article, which the ambassador posted on the WeChat page of the British Embassy in China, Wilson went so far as to compare the reporting of British media in China to that of some of China’s domestic investigative reporting outlets.

Citing China’s Caixin, Wilson noted that “more than 30” of its reporters “conducted investigations and revealed how local authorities suppressed the whistleblower doctors.”  Yet, “their critical reports were not seen as evidence that they hated Wuhan or even China.”  They were praised, not vilified, for “identifying problems” and holding people to account.

For her “arrogance,” however, China’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador in for rebuke and remonstrations, citing her “ideological prejudice.” Wilson, for her part, doubled down on Twitter.

“I stand by my article,” the ambassador, who took up her post in Beijing in September 2020, said.

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“No doubt the outgoing Chinese ambassador to the UK stands by the 170+ pieces he was free to place in mainstream British media,” Wilson added in her tweet. The reference is to the prodigious writings of Liu Xiaoming, who for 11 years was China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, retiring earlier this year.

China’s Foreign Ministry also claimed that Wilson’s article was “seriously inconsistent with the status of diplomats.”

If so, China needs to rein in the writings and utterances of its own diplomats abroad. In February 2020, Liu stepped beyond the borders of diplomatic niceties and said that Tory politicians in the U.K. who oppose the purchase of Huawei’s 5G telecommunications equipment are engaged in “a kind of a witch-hunt,” according to the BBC.

Liu took it further in July 2020. Saying that it is “not in the U.K.’s interest” to make an enemy of Beijing, the then-ambassador warned of “consequences” if Britain rejected Huawei.

One can only imagine what the Chinese would say if a foreign ambassador in Beijing threatened the Chinese government with “consequences” for not buying a product made by his or her home country.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry may have been surprised by Wilson’s article. Shortly after taking up her post, a photo showing Wilson and Liu jointly holding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s latest book was posted on social media, resulting in widespread criticism of Wilson for supposedly appeasing and pandering to China.

In his criticism of Wilson’s article, Zhao said China had stated to her its “solemn position on the relevant issue.”

“Ambassador Wilson’s article, with a confused logic, avoids all the facts, including the British media’s disinformation and false reporting on China,” Zhao said.

In February, China blocked the BBC from broadcasting in China a week after the U.K. revoked the license of China Global Television Network (CGTN), citing the Chinese broadcaster’s ultimate controlling body as the Chinese Communist Party.

Zhao also accused Wilson of ignoring the alleged suppression of Chinese media in the West, praising “the so-called Western experience in an arrogant tone,” and making “irresponsible remarks about China’s system and media.”

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In both English and Chinese, Wilson’s article could indeed come off as a bit preachy. The ambassador offers history lessons supporting the role and importance of a free press from ancient Greece and the Socratic method to 18th century British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, 19th century German philosopher Georg William Friedrich Hegel, and modern-day British journalist Jeremy Paxton. In other words, the article somewhat presupposes that the reader doesn’t necessarily know the importance of a free press.

Wilson also uses numerous examples of both foreign and domestic press reporting in China to illustrate how the power of a “critical” press helps, not hurts, the Chinese government and society as a whole. The ambassador extends the lesson to instances of dogged journalism in Britain that eventually exposed government corruption.

In other words, her message to China seems to be: Look, we’re just like you. We have problems with government transparency and corruption, too, and this is one of the ways we solve it. So, when we file tough reports on China, it’s not because we hate China, it’s because we care about China, just as we care about Britain.

This is a message that has little chance of resonating in China, however – not only within Chinese officialdom, but among society at large, as well. The reasons may seem counterintuitive to some, but to almost all Chinese, they are valid and visceral.

Any foreigner, particularly any Westerner, wishing to get a rise out of their counterpart in China, whether during the negotiation of a diplomatic agreement, a commercial contract, or the battle for a good table in a packed restaurant, only needs to appear to “teach” one’s Chinese counterpart about the right way to do things. Chinese society tends to be sensitive to the point of being prickly over any foreign attitude that implies superiority of education, experience, morality, systems, or ethics. The condescension that such an attitude implies will not go unremarked.

Nonetheless, China’s accusation of Wilson’s “ideological prejudices” is particularly ironic.

A strong case can be made that a description of “ideological prejudice” fits the contours and confines of the Chinese Communist Party itself, ever more so in recent years.  As the party and the state have retaken control over individual lives and narratives in ways and to degrees not seen since the early 1990s, when the reins slowly began to be loosened, China has indeed hardened its own ideological structures. Chinese efforts to successfully navigate global contexts have predictably suffered as a result.

Wilson’s case shows, however, that even when one compliments China, as she did in her references to selected Chinese media reports, and even when one makes it clear that no one “hates” China either in the foreign media or beyond, even the suggestion of a different way of doing things is enough to provoke what Chinese officials interpret as a public humiliation.

Meanwhile, one wonders if in the hallways of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, anybody realizes that the dressing down to which the ministry subjected Dame Caroline Wilson DCMG, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to China, has made her not only a cause celebre, but has also added yet another badge to her already long list of honors.