LONDON – Britain’s 90-year-old monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has made a rare apparent gaffe, being caught on film characterizing Chinese officials as “very rude” in their dealings with British counterparts during a state visit last year.
Queen Elizabeth II made the unguarded comments Tuesday while talking to a senior police officer at a rain-soaked garden party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
With uncharacteristic bluntness – rarely if ever heard in public – the queen said the Chinese had not dealt properly with Barbara Woodward, the British envoy to China.
“They were very rude to the ambassador,” Elizabeth said.
The comments were recorded by an official cameraman and distributed to broadcasters under a pool arrangement allowing them to use the material, which surfaced on-air Wednesday.
Elizabeth’s broadside was unusual on several fronts: As a constitutional monarch, she is prohibited from being actively involved in politics. She has assiduously earned a reputation for great discretion, and it is completely out of character for her to publicly criticize another country’s diplomats.
If anything, she has been so careful to adhere strictly to her defined constitutional role that some commentators say they have no idea what she thinks about world affairs.
It is now clear, however, that she was at least annoyed by some of the positions taken by the Chinese delegation during a state visit that was vital for Britain’s political and business leaders, who seek ever-closer ties with China to bolster trade.
Both sides responded quickly to the break in the queen’s neutral approach – by downplaying its importance and asserting that the state visit had indeed been a triumph.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, asked about the queen’s remarks at a daily news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, declined to address them directly, but said Chinese President Xi Jinping had made a “very successful visit” to Britain last year.
“The working teams from both sides made huge efforts to make this possible. This effort has been highly recognized by both China and Britain,” Lu said.
Despite Lu’s comments, China appeared to regard the queen’s comments as sensitive. Information about the remarks was difficult to find on China’s heavily censored Internet and government monitors cut the signal of the British Broadcasting Corp. when it reported on the comments.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the visit “got a bit stressful on both sides” but had been “highly successful.”
He said that “our relationship with China is very strong and has been greatly strengthened by the success of that visit.”
The remarks were recorded at one of the queen’s summer garden parties, where she traditionally greets a long line of guests as she makes her way to the royal tent for tea and sandwiches.
In the video, an official introduced the queen to police Commander Lucy D’Orsi and explained that the officer was in charge of policing for Xi’s visit in October.
The queen quickly responded: “Oh! Bad luck.”
The official told the queen that D’Orsi had been “seriously undermined by the Chinese” in the handling of the visit.
When D’Orsi asked if the queen knew it had been a “testing time,” the monarch interjected: “I did.”
The officer recalled a moment when Chinese officials walked out of a meeting with Woodward, the ambassador, and told the British the trip was off.
“They walked out on both of us,” D’Orsi said.
“Extraordinary,” the queen said.
“It was very rude and undiplomatic I thought,” D’Orsi said.
Both the Metropolitan police and the palace refused to comment on what they described as private conversations. The palace stressed that Xi’s visit had been “extremely successful.”
British officials had added layers of pomp and splendor – including a state banquet at the palace – during Xi’s four-day state visit.
Xi was welcomed with a 41-gun artillery salute, and taken to Buckingham Palace in a royal gilded carriage drawn by white horses.
The queen gave Xi and his wife a personal tour of the Royal Collection at the palace. She gave them a special collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets and spoke glowingly of the two countries’ “global partnership” at the elaborate state dinner.
There were no public hints of tensions at the time, although Prince Charles – the heir to the throne, and a supporter of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama shunned by the Chinese – did not attend the gala banquet.
The two countries signed more than 30 billion pounds ($46 billion) in trade agreements during the trip, and Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would be China’s “partner of choice” in the West.
This is not the first time British royals have been caught making undiplomatic remarks about the Chinese. Prince Charles branded Chinese diplomats “appalling old waxworks” in a private journal entry that had described the 1997 ceremony to hand Hong Kong back to Chinese rule.
In 1986, Prince Philip reportedly told British exchange students in China they would get “slitty eyes” if they stayed in China too long.