BEIJING — While Prince William’s first stop in Beijing on Monday paid tribute to his father, the Duke of Cambridge is proving a more deft diplomat on all things China than his dad, Prince Charles.
William visited an old courtyard house, restored and turned into a museum with the support of charities set up by his father — who has never been to China and probably wouldn't be as welcome given his ties to Tibet.
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The museum was set up to preserve the history of hutongs — networks of narrow alleyways and homes, some dating from the 13th century — which once dominated Beijing but which have been fast disappearing amidst the city's modernization.
UNESCO estimates that 88 percent of Beijing’s courtyard homes have been destroyed and only about 600,000 of the city's 20 million inhabitants still live in hutongs.
Shopowner Gua Yanbin is one of them, and welcomed William's visit to the museum a few doors down from his family home as "a good thing" to raise awareness about the disappearing hutong.
“We should protect the hutongs,” he said. “Yes, we are building more high-rises, but there is no good taste in those high buildings. There’s nothing special in them. Old buildings should be preserved."
Old buildings and also wildlife feature prominently on William's agenda in China — and unfortunately China has a pretty dire record on both.
Still, William is on safer diplomatic ground than Charles — who once called aging Chinese leaders "appalling old waxworks" and has championed the cause of Tibet.
That was clear when William opted to steer clear of politics on Monday, simply saying "ni hao" — or hello — to the gaggle of press awaiting him.