China’s royal obsession: How Chinese leaders utilize their royal connections

By Benjamin Miles

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President Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan meeti King Sihamoni and Queen Mother Sihanouk in BeijingPhoto credits: news.cn

NANJING, China — On September 20, 2018, a rather unusual topic appeared in several publications in China. The China Daily English edition, People’s Daily Chinese edition and the local Nanjing Daily all reported on the same event with more or less the same wording, that Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk in Beijing. Even more curious,  the meeting was not covered by any foreign press aside from Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post, which essentially echoed the China Daily’s English edition of the article.

The articles outlined an intimate meeting in which Xi and the king wished each other a happy Mid-Autumn Festival and hailed their annual meetings since 2016 as “a gathering of family members.” These meetings harken back to dynastic China when surrounding kingdoms paid tribute to the Middle Kingdom and were generally considered as part of a “family” with China. Widespread media coverage in China of such visits suggests the Middle Kingdom has a soft spot for monarchs.

Hopkins-Nanjing Center alum Sophie Richardson outlines in her 2010 book “China, Cambodia and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” the origins of relations between the Cambodian monarchy and the People’s Republic of China. Richardson examines the meetings between King Sihamoni’s father, King Sihanouk, and Chinese leaders from as early as February 1956. In one such meeting, Mao Zedong “reassured Sihanouk that, although China was a communist state and Cambodia was a monarchy, their relationship was still ‘like that of family’.” The relationship did not stop there, as Sihanouk supported the “One China” policy as one of the most “tangible expressions of Five-Principles-based diplomacy” and fought for China to regain its seat in the UN in the 1960s.

While this relationship finds its origin in political ideology, contemporary Sino-Cambodian relations lean towards money and investment. In  2017, China’s trade with Cambodia jumped to $4.8 billion as Cambodia imported $3.9 billion worth of Chinese goods. Additionally, China urged Cambodia to begin using the Chinese yuan in bilateral trade and initiated several Belt and Road projects, including dam construction, in southern Cambodia. While many Cambodians profit from Chinese investment, some have become wary of the increasing Chinese presence in parts of the country.

It is important to consider how the king fits into all of this. Ascending to the throne in 1941, King Sihanouk was the first Cambodian king to establish direct contact with his subjects. From that point on, the Cambodian monarchy became intimately involved with the political affairs of the country, that is, until the rise in 1985 of a new political figure, Prime Minister Hun Sen. Today, King Sihamoni is considered little  more than a puppet king of Hun Sen’s and one who largely stays out of the spotlight. But as Cambodian relations grew cozier with China in recent years, the king has increasingly had nice things to say about the PRC. During a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi in 2017, he even referred to China and Cambodia as the most “intimate friends.”

But what about other monarchies? In nearby Thailand, relations between the Thai monarchy and the PRC seem very similar to those with Cambodia’s royal family. In fact, several members of the Thai royal family, including Princess Sirindhorn, share very intimate ties with China. Princess Sirindhorn not only has studied Chinese language and culture since childhood, but was also named “people’s friendship ambassador” during a visit in Beijing. Thailand’s recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej met with several Chinese leaders after Thailand and the PRC re-established relations in the mid 1970s. As an article in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia explains, “it is common to hear leaders from China and Thailand frequently express their close ties by stating that “the Chinese and the Thais are the same family.” The Sino-Thai relationship seems to be rooted from the monarchy down. Considering Thai military-monarchy relations, this may be an extension of the ruling Thai military junta’s wishes to attract Chinese investment.

However, another Southeast Asian country’s monarch, Brunei’s Sultan Haj Hassanal Bolkiah, seems to have a different approach to relations with the PRC. Rather than a familial relationship of “fraternity” with President Xi, Sultan Bolkiah is all business. In 2017, Sultan Bolkiah and President Xi met regarding Belt and Road construction in Brunei. Furthermore, Sultan Bolkiah commended China’s contributions in “maintaining global peace, prosperity and development,” and reaffirmed his belief in the One China policy. However, notably lacking are any expressions of “family relations” between Brunei and China, perhaps a consequence of cultural distance between the Islamic culture of Brunei and China’s Confucian values.

European monarchs, on the other hand, provide a stark contrast to Asian monarchy relations. Regardless of British attempts to woo China; the Queen has her own ideas on Chinese state visits. Queen Elizabeth commented that Chinese officials were “very rude” during a 2016 state visit, Prince Charles, in contradiction with British official policy on China, maintains friendship with the Dalai Lama. This tension remains, even after  President Xi and his wife’s visit to Buckingham Palace was hailed as a “milestone” visit. China seems to have a desire to meet with British royalty despite their clear hostility to Chinese officials, although it doesn’t seem to influence the robust economic relationship between the two countries.

Finally while we seldom hear from Belgium’s King Philippe, President Xi has met with him several times since 2014. The initial 2014 meeting was the first time the Belgian king received a foreign head of state, who awarded President Xi the Order of Leopold, a Belgian national honor of knighthood. In their most recent meeting, President Xi met with King Philippe to promote European integration, perhaps indicating a legitimacy-gaining measure to promote Xi’s agenda with the EU.

With all these royal meetings, what is China’s goal? They could be an attempt by the Chinese regime to equate President Xi with royalty. This could go along with President Xi’s cultivation of a paternalistic image in China in recent years, including references to him as “Xi Da Da” (Papa Xi) or  party propaganda describing him as the “core” of the party. Something to observe, however, is that the way in which President Xi and the Chinese state engages with different monarchs may change depending on the part of the world or the civilization they represent.

For the more traditionally “Sino-centric” states like Cambodia or Thailand, the relationship could mean a harkening back to the time of kings, regardless of ideological differences. But for other civilizations in the Muslim world, like Brunei, or Western civilization in Europe, such a relationship is strictly business, or even a show of legitimacy. Whatever the patterns, Chinese leaders utilizing these royal connections in their relations with other states is an interesting precedent in China’s developing role as a great power.

Benjamin Miles is an HNC MAIS ‘19 student focusing on International Politics.