October 14, 2013 7:55 am

Boris Johnson trumps George Osborne in China charm game

If the next leadership contest of the UK Conservative party were decided by Chinese university students, Boris Johnson would win handily over George Osborne.


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In a joint appearance with the UK chancellor at Beijing University on Monday, London’s mayor bowled over the crowd with his fluid conversational style and trademark humour.

The event had been billed by government aides as the “scene-setter” for both politicians’ week-long China tours, which mark the first high-level diplomatic meetings between the two countries since David Cameron, prime minister, angered Beijing last year by meeting with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader.

Mr Johnson leaves Beijing on Wednesday for Shanghai, while Mr Osborne will travel on to Guangdong province to visit Chinese high-tech companies and seal a nuclear agreement with the Chinese General Nuclear Power Group over its participation in EDF’s Hinkley Point nuclear power plant.

While both men drew heavily on their own personal experiences in welcoming UK engagement with China, their two styles were as different as those exemplified by China’s robotic former president, Hu Jintao, and his mellifluous successor, Xi Jinping.

Both Mr Johnson and Mr Osborne stuck closely to their prepared remarks, but only the latter’s address appeared scripted.

“I thought the chancellor’s speech was logical,” said Zhang Shuo, a first-year international relations student. “The London mayor used humour, a popular touch and personal examples to interact with us.”

“I liked the London mayor better,” added Liu Honglei, another female student. “He has a better sense of humour.”

Most of the students’ questions were directed at Mr Johnson, who was asked for advice on subjects ranging from air pollution to book fairs.

Speaking in defence of free trade and foreign investment, the mayor deftly disarmed one student, Vickie Tian Weixi, who said she would object if overseas companies were buying bits of Beijing at the same rate that Chinese companies are gobbling up large chunks of London.

“It enables us to get on with building projects that simply wouldn’t happen,” he told Ms Tian, a first-year journalism student. “I would just remind people who are hostile to foreign investment that London was founded by a bunch of pushy Italian immigrants, the Romans, and where would we be without them?”

The mayor could not even resist an opportunity to trump Mr Osborne’s anecdote about his 10 year-old daughter teaching him Chinese characters. “My own daughter is not only learning Mandarin, she is coming out here next week. How about that,” Mr Johnson said.

Both men have been careful not to tread on Chinese sensibilities. Mr Johnson has had to fend off repeated questions about the Dalai Lama, emphasising that as a humble mayor he does not have a foreign policy.

The chancellor, meanwhile, devoted much of his speech on Monday to UK collaboration with China’s “new giants of the internet” without referring to the “Great Firewall” that has protected many of them from competition with the likes of Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

“There are some western governments that have blocked Huawei from making investments, [but] not Britain,” the chancellor said, referring to the Chinese technology company that is particularly controversial among politicians in the US.

“I was pleased to welcome Huawei’s opening of a flagship office in our country this summer and the £1.3bn of investment that comes with it. This week I will travel myself to visit the company’s global headquarters in Shenzhen to see what more we can do together.”

Mr Johnson, however, did joke about security concerns surrounding Chinese investment in the UK and elsewhere. The mayor cited plans by Singapore’s KOP properties and Reignwood, a Chinese investment group, to refurbish the historic Port of London headquarters building, which he said was depicted as the fictional headquarters of MI6 in last year’s James Bond blockbuster, Skyfall.

“If that isn’t openness to China, I don’t know what is,” Mr Johnson said. “We are not only working together on our nuclear programme; we have sold you our offices of the secret service – saves time, I imagine.”

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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