By Tania Branigan/The Guardian –
Beijing summoned the British ambassador following the prime minister’s meeting in London earlier this month and warned publicly that the event had damaged relations with the UK.
But the cancellation of Wu Bangguo’s visit had previously escaped notice because it had not been announced.
Wu, who is the country’s chief legislator and serves on its top political decision-making body, has just concluded a tour of Europe that was due to include the short trip to Britain.
Chinese officials informed their British counterparts that the visit was cancelled after learning of Cameron’s meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, sources said.
A spokesman at the British embassy in Beijing did not comment on the timing or cause of the cancellation, but confirmed: “There was a proposed visit by Wu Bangguo which has not happened.
“We very much regret that Chairman Wu was not able to travel to the UK; his visit would have been a good opportunity to continue deepening UK-China relations. We would welcome future visitors from the National People’s Congress to strengthen the UK-China dialogue.”
Wu chairs the standing committee of the NPC, the country’s legislature.
The Chinese foreign ministry had not responded to queries at time of writing, but a spokesman warned after Cameron’s meeting that the British government had “[hurt] the feelings of the Chinese people”, meddled in China’s affairs and harmed Chinese-British relations.
Hong Lei added: “We are strongly discontented and firmly opposed to it.
“We call on the British side to earnestly respond to China’s solemn demand, stop conniving at and supporting separatist attempts to achieve Tibetan independence, take practical measures to eliminate the terrible impact and take actions to preserve Chinese-British relations.”
A commentary published by the state news agency Xinhua described it as “a dark moment for China-Britain relations”.
China alleges that the Dalai Lama wants to split the country, while he says that he seeks only meaningful autonomy for Tibet.
Beijing pays close attention to his travels and lobbies foreign leaders not to meet him, often warning that it will damage bilateral relations. It is particularly alert to arrangements suggesting the Dalai Lama is an official visitor akin to a visiting statesman and to awards and honours he is granted.
Cameron and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, met him at St Paul’s Cathedral – where the Dalai Lama was receiving the £1.1m Templeton prize – rather than on government premises.
Beijing’s highest-level protest came in 2008 when it called off a major EU summit because Nicholas Sarkozy, then French president, was due to meet the Tibetan.
More recently, it is understood to have cancelled bilateral visits after the Estonian president and other politicians met the Dalai Lama last summer. A few months later there was fury from civil rights campaigners when the spiritual leader failed to obtain a visa to South Africa, where he hoped to celebrate his friend Desmond Tutu’s birthday. South African officials denied they were bowing to pressure from China, its biggest trading partner.
Diplomats say the Czech Republic has had particularly frosty relations with China over its dealings with the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has visited the country nine times and was a friend of the late Vaclav Havel, its former president.
“They have been made an example of; it is easier to punish smaller countries,” said one.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany said they had found meetings with the Dalai Lama damaged exports to China. Their study of 159 countries over 17 years suggested exports slipped by an average 8.1% in the two years after a country’s officials met the Tibetan spiritual leader, but recovered after that.