Xi"s stops at a pub, soccer club made him a man of the people
President Xi Jinping"s historic state visit to the United Kingdom in October 2015 has been hailed by British and Chinese officials as the start of a "Golden Era" of relations.
It was the first official visit by a Chinese head of state for a decade. In five days, Xi attended more than 30 events, varying from traditional royal pageantry to modern creative display.
Memorable highlights, which grabbed the headlines both in China and abroad, included a carriage ride to Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II, a visit to a country pub in the company of then-prime minister David Cameron and a selfie photo with Manchester City soccer player Sergio Aguero.
"President Xi"s state visit heralded a new era for China-UK relations," Liu Xiaoming, China"s ambassador to the UK, told China Daily ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
"China-UK strategic mutual trust was strengthened. Our shared determination on closer cooperation was firm. The foundation for our bilateral relations was consolidated."
A Financial Times editorial saw the visit as marking "a fundamental recalibration in the UK"s great power relations."
Jim O"Neill, then commercial secretary to the Treasury, who accompanied Xi on various engagements during his visit, said it "happened at a time when China is more focused on the quality of growth than just the amount of growth, which is almost ideal for what the UK excels in".
"It was an extraordinary potential benefit for the UK, relative to other countries," O"Neill added.
The UK has now become a top destination for Chinese investment. So far, $18 billion of Chinese nonfinancial investment has made its way into a wide range of sectors in the UK. The Hinkley Point C project, a deal inked during Xi"s visit, becomes the first-ever China-backed nuclear power plant constructed in a developed economy and is progressing well in southwestern England. And the country pub in rural Buckinghamshire has witnessed busloads of Chinese tourists.
Xi and Prime Minister Theresa May, who took office after the Brexit referendum in June 2016, reaffirmed the shared commitment to building the China-UK "Golden Era" over the past year. They have maintained close personal contact, exchanging letters on many issues and holding two meetings and one telephone talk.
It is "a strong reassurance for the continued, healthy growth of our bilateral relationship and our ever deepening cooperation across the board," Liu said.
Xi"s trip took him not only to London but also other parts of Britain. The president experienced something less formal at Chequers, a tranquil country estate that has hosted foreign dignitaries since becoming the official retreat of British prime ministers in 1921.
David Cameron took Xi for Britain"s famous fish and chips and a pint in a traditional English pub－the Plough at Cadsden in rural Buckinghamshire.
Recalling what happened that evening, Steve Hollings, who served Xi and Cameron at the pub, said: "(Xi) is one of the nicest men you could possibly wish to meet. He"s a real, true gentleman and a lovely man, and I was very impressed."
Hollings noted that Xi was interested in customers who were drinking in the pub that night.
"Because it is quite a wealthy area, we had a lot of businessmen in the pub that night and he was very interested in any sort of dealings or business that any of the customers had with China," said Hollings.
Hollings said going to the pub is a British tradition and many people go to one to relax and chat with friends.
"The prime minister bringing Xi to the pub means that he treats Xi as a friend and such a gesture is generally interpreted as a sign of particular warmth in a relationship," he said.
After the presidential patronage, the pub shot to fame in China and has since become a tourist attraction, with busloads of Chinese tourists arriving to sample the same classic British fare.
Last December, Hollings sold the pub to a Chinese investor.
"It has piqued a lot of Chinese tourists" interest," said Liam Jones, the pub"s deputy manager. "We receive a lot of Chinese tourist groups, ranging from a table of four to a table of 14. Usually, it"s always what the president ordered, the fish and chips with a pint of IPA (short for India pale ale)."
As part of the trip, Xi took a tour around the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City"s ground, where the team"s striker, Sergio Aguero, took a selfie with Xi and Cameron.
Aguero recalled: "We were at the training complex and the prime minister was there with President Xi. The president said to me, "I remember you, you scored a goal." We were laughing a little, and as we were walking along I felt confident to ask, "Can I take a selfie with you?" The prime minister joined, and we took a selfie."
The Argentine striker posted the picture on Manchester City"s official Twitter feed, writing in both Chinese and English, "Thank you for the selfie, President Xi."
He said he could never imagine what happened next. The selfie went viral, spreading across the world widely on social media.
"Every person in the world asks me about the selfie," he said. "It was really a beautiful moment that will live long in my memory."
Following Xi"s visit, Manchester City has become one of the most popular Premier League clubs in China.
Later that year, China Media Capital bought 13 percent of the club"s parent company, City Football Group, for 265 million pounds ($400 million), forging a close relationship between China and the club.
"We have a lot of interest in China and we also have a lot people and resources in helping China develop its football," Ferran Soriano, the club"s chief executive officer, said. "We see China as a land of opportunity for global football."
He added: "There is no doubt that if China invests the right thing with the right patience, in 10 years, you will be one of the biggest football countries in the world."
Xi"s visit to Manchester in 2015 was an attempt to cement the relationship between China and the Northern Powerhouse, a project to create an economic area in northern England that could rival London.
New direct flights between Manchester and Beijing, operated by Hainan Airlines, were announced during the visit and the first flight took off last June, providing the UK"s only direct connection outside of London.
A 130 million pound project, the China Cluster, was unveiled to provide a commercial base for Chinese businesses in the UK.
"I think the relationship between China and Manchester is a long-lasting consequence," said O"Neill, adding that he believes the Chinese people understand the Northern Powerhouse in a way that many other countries do not.
"For Chinese policymakers, the idea of trying to shift regional economic growth is something that China has done quite successfully over the past 20 years," O"Neill said.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airport Group, who welcomed Xi at the airport, said the president is seen as "somebody who"s interested in global connectivity, somebody who"s interested in helping businesses to develop relationships across continents and across countries, and certainly somebody who"s very insightful".
"I think most people in his company and in his presence that day were actually very impressed by the Chinese president," said Cornish, who said he believes the president"s visit acted as a catalyst for business-to-business connectivity.
Cornish noted the bilateral relationship in recent years has raised the level of interest in Britain and the number of Chinese visitors has grown.
"There are more businesses connecting into China from the Northwest now, so there are lots of really good signs about a developing relationship," he said. "I think most people in the UK, certainly Northern Powerhouse, are getting confidence in the Chinese president. He certainly seems to be a man that is very competent and is getting a great deal of creditability on the world stage."
Zhang Yangfei and Xinhua contributed to this story