British Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II were both caught on camera this week making unguarded and unflattering comments about other nations.
Cameron was overheard on Tuesday telling the Queen that the leaders headed to Britain this week for an anti-corruption conference are from “some fantastically corrupt countries.” He singled out Nigeria and Afghanistan as “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world."
In a separate incident Tuesday, the Queen was caught on camera saying Chinese officials were “very rude” to the British ambassador during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.K. in October.
Their comments were embarrassing. They caused a minor backlash. And beyond that, they expose some of the hypocrisies of Britain’s foreign relations.
Cameron was partially correct in his remarks about corruption. Afghanistan is the third most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International's 2015 corruption perception index. Nigeria is the 31st most corrupt.
Cameron’s comments sparked a ferocious debate among Nigerians on social media, and the hashtag #FantasticallyCorrupt was trending in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos.
Some Nigerians took exception to Cameron’s blanket statement, pointing out that President Muhammadu Buhari has embarked on a sweeping crackdown on corruption since being elected last year.
Others called out the hypocrisy of Cameron’s remarks, noting that Britain is itself a linchpin to global corruption as a major destination for stolen assets.
Anti-corruption campaigners highlighted the same irony in Cameron’s statement, as well Britain's hosting of an anti-corruption conference in London, one of the world’s most notorious havens for ill-gotten gains. British law enforcement agencies estimate hundreds of billions of pounds are laundered through U.K. banks every year.
“We should not forget that by providing a safe haven for corrupt assets, the UK and its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are a big part of the world’s corruption problem,” Cobus de Swardt, Transparency International’s managing director, said in a statement responding to Cameron’s remarks.
Buhari said Wednesday he wasn’t looking for Cameron to apologize for his gaffe. “He was telling the truth” about corruption in Nigeria, Buhari said after arriving in London for the anti-corruption summit.
But corruption "does not differentiate between developed and developing countries,” the Nigerian leader said pointedly. Rather than apologies, Buhari urged more help from British authorities to retrieve stolen Nigerian assets stashed in the U.K.
The Queen’s comments about Chinese officials on Tuesday referred to tensions behind the scenes of the Chinese president’s recent state visit, which was publicly touted as a great success for relations between China and the U.K.
When the Queen was introduced to a British police official who was responsible for security for the visit, she responded: “Oh, bad luck.” After the police official described Chinese officials threatening to call off the visit, the Queen responded: "They were very rude to the ambassador."
A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry reiterated on Wednesday the official position on both sides -- the visit was a great success and both nations are working to further strengthen the relationship. When asked about the Queen’s comments, he laughed and said, “I have already said what I can say,” according to The Guardian.
China appeared to have partially censored the news on Wednesday. A BBC News report on the Queen’s comments was blanked out in China, according to the network, and some discussion boards on the topic on Chinese social network Weibo appear to have been shut down.
Chinese social media users on one Weibo board that was still available late Wednesday poked fun both at the Queen and their president. "And the Queen is openly talking about another head of state’s manners? You, the Queen of England, who has stamped all over the world for hundreds of years,” one user commented in Chinese.
“One day with [Xi Jinping] brought such bad luck. We've already endured it for 3 years and there'll be many more years to come, although who knows how many there will be,” another wrote.
On Thursday, a commentary in The Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with China's ruling Communist Party, said the Queen's remarks would not affect relations between the countries, as it wasn't surprising that officials complain about each other in private.
The Chinese-language newspaper commentary slammed British media for publishing the clip: "The disrespectful and narcissistic gossipers in the [Western] media bared their fangs, as if retaining vestiges of the inelegance of barbarians," it read.
The Queen’s representatives said they would not comment on her private conversations and criticized the BBC for broadcasting them. The Queen usually tries to remain above the political and diplomatic fray.
Whatever really transpired between the Chinese officials and the British ambassador, the Queen’s candid remarks highlight some difficulties in relations beneath the rosy public image that the British government is eager to project. It lauded Xi’s visit as a major boost to economic ties between Britain and Europe, and ignored calls to address China’s human rights record during the visit. Cameron said at the time the visit would usher in a "golden era" in relations between the U.K and China.
Relations have since been strained over tensions in the South China Sea and the suspected abduction of bookseller Lee Bo, who is a British citizen, from Hong Kong last December. A Chinese government official declined to comment Wednesday about whether the “golden era” was still ongoing.
This story has been updated with commentary from Chinese newspaper The Global Times.
Alexandra Ma contributed reporting.