British Prime Minister David Cameron faced demands for the return of priceless artefacts looted from Beijing in the 19th century on Wednesday, the last day of his visit to China.
Cameron travelled to the southwestern city of Chengdu on the third day of what embassy officials said was the largest ever British trade mission to the country.
British officials say £5.6 billion-worth of deals have been signed so far on the trip, but Cameron has been derided by both Chinese state-run media and the country’s sharp-tongued Internet users.
The prime minister last Friday set up his own microblogging page on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, attracting more than 230,000 followers by Wednesday.
He invited netizens to ask questions, saying that he would aim to reply during the visit.
One of the most popular questions was posted by a prominent Chinese think-tank, the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, which is headed by former vice-premier Zeng Peiyan and includes as its members many top government officials and leading economists.
“When will Britain return the illegally plundered artefacts?” the organisation asked, referring to 23,000 items in the British Museum which it says were looted by the British Army, part of the Eight-Nation Alliance that put down the Boxer Rebellion at the end of the 19th century, a popular uprising against the incursion of European imperial powers in China.
To the Chinese, the ransacking of the Forbidden City, and the earlier destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860 – about which one British officer wrote: “You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them” – remain key symbols of how the country was once dominated by foreign powers.
Even now the ruling Communist party appeals to nationalism to bolster its popularity.
Beijing was outraged by Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama – who it condemns as a dangerous separatist – last year, which led to a diplomatic deep-freeze between the two nations.
Despite the trip being billed as a trade mission, it has widely been seen as an attempt to repair some of the damage caused to China-British relations.
But a leading state newspaper launched an attack on Cameron Tuesday, saying Britain should recognise it is not a major power but “just an old European country apt for travel and study” in an editorial under the headline “China won’t fall for Cameron’s ‘sincerity’”.
The prime minister has taken more than 100 businesspeople with him to China, including the heads of Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls Royce and Royal Dutch Shell and the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange.