ALTHOUGH British Prime Minister David Cameron gave Chinese president Xi Jinping an autographed jersey of the England football team at the start of his visit, what some Chinese really want are the embroidered robes, sculptures and other treasures that the British looted from China some 150 years ago.
Indeed, one of the thousands of questions asked of Mr Cameron on the Sina Weibo social media account he started just ahead of his China visit this week was: “When will Britain return the illegally plundered artefacts?”
As the usually nationalistic Global Times tabloid noted, this was one of the most popular questions lobbed at Mr Cameron, attracting thousands of thumbs up from netizens.
It was posed by the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges, a think tank headed by former premier Zeng Peiyan.
What the centre had in mind were 23,000 antique items in the British Museum, which it said had been stolen back in the late 1800s when China was weak and bullied by the Western powers including Britain.
“Can your esteemed country return the national treasures looted from China when the Allied forces invaded China during the last days of the Qing?” others asked.
There were also questions about what Mr Cameron thought of hot-button issues such as the Diaoyu Islands dispute and China’s ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone).
While some questions were pointed and political, most were about British pop cultural products like its TV shows and stars, reflecting how despite their historical animosities, Cool Britainia does have a market in China.
Indeed, the tone of most of the questions on Mr Cameron’s weibo account page, which had more than 317,000 fans as of Thursday, were friendly.
Many peppered the British leader with questions about a man who’s arguably the most popular Briton in China right now.
“My dear Mr president (sic), will you please tell Sherlock Holmes to show up earlier? We have waited for him for so long!” pleaded on fan named Cherry. She took the trouble to type in English, never mind her confusion about Mr Cameron’s exact post.
Like many others, she wanted to know when Season 3 of Sherlock, the hit BBC drama about the fictitious sleuth, would premiere.
“Can you help me pass a message to Sherlock? I have waited for him until the flowers have wilted,” cried another fan “Jinxi”.
Many Chinese not only could spell “Sherlock” but even the name of the actor who plays his: Benedict Cumberbatch.
“When will you bring Benedict Cumberbatch with you next time you visit?” was one question asked of Mr Cameron.
Another asked the same question about Mr Bean, the bumbling character made popular by Rowan Atkinson. The names of other British stars like Keira Knightley also came up.
Mr Cameron’s weibo move looks to be a popular one. Many Chinese were excited to have the chance to leave messages for a national leader. Some even asked him to get Mr Xi to start a Weibo account too.
Online and offline, the British leader tried to charm the Chinese during his visit. In Chengdu, he played ping pong - or tried to - ate spicy hot pot and made a big deal of urging British schoolkids to learn Chinese and not French or German. (never mind what the neighbours say!)
Mr Cameron also included in his entourage faces from the popular English Premier League, like former Chelsea defender Graeme Le Saux and West Ham United vice-chairman Karren Brady.
So much so that some from the land of ping pong diplomacy have dubbed these deft British touches “football diplomacy”.
It’s not a bad move given how many Chinese, including Mr Xi, love football. Under Mr Xi, news of China’s national football team, previously not shown on the primetime 7pm news bulletin, has become important enough to be aired.
So yes, when it comes to scoring brownie points with the Chinese, Britain does know how to play ball after all.