Mr Hunt, who succeeded the gaffe-prone Boris Johnson earlier this month, may have hoped his personal connection to Chinathrough his wife, Lucia, would have aided his efforts to forge strong links with his Chinese counterparts.
But in a meeting with officials from the Beijing government, Mr Hunt said: “My wife is Japanese … my wife is Chinese.”
To laughter in the room, he added: “Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.”
“My wife is Chinese and my children are half-Chinese and so we have Chinese grandparents who live in Xian and strong family connections in China,” he added, referring to the ancient city of Xian in northern China.
His remarks came after he hailed UK-China relations, claiming the two countries were both “major powers with a global perspective” ahead of talks with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
At a press conference with counterpart Wang Yi, Mr Hunt was also asked about the situation in Hong Kong, which the UK handed back to China in 1997.
Under the “one country, two systems” model, Beijing promised to let Hong Kong maintain wide autonomy and civil liberties, but fears are growing that China’s leaders are backtracking by oppressing the political opposition.
Mr Hunt said: “We had extensive discussions about one country, two systems and the current situation in Hong Kong, and we had a very open and frank discussion about the concerns raised by a number of people.
“We also of course discussed our trading relationship, and I think the best way to continue to grow our trade and strength and trust between Britain and China is to be able to have the kind of open and frank discussions we had this morning.
“Hong Kong is part of China but of course we signed the joint declaration and we, as the United Kingdom, are very much committed to the one country, two systems approach, which we think has served both Hong Kong and China extremely well.”
Mr Wang pointedly responded: “Hong Kong affairs are the domestic affairs of China. We do not welcome nor do we accept other countries to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.”
But he insisted that “China will continue to support and will stay committed to one country, two systems”.
Speaking ahead of the visit, Mr Hunt added: “As the UK leaves the EU and becomes ever-more outward-looking, we are committed to deepening this vital partnership for the 21st century.
“The UK-China strategic dialogue is an important opportunity to intensify our cooperation on shared challenges in international affairs, ranging from global free trade to non-proliferation and environmental challenges, under the UK-China global partnership and ‘Golden Era’ for UK-China relations.”
Why Jeremy Hunt’s ‘Japanese’ wife gaffe is a bad mistake
The UK’s new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is on an official visit to China – but an embarrassing gaffe is stealing the headlines instead.
Mr Hunt tried to get into his host’s good books by mentioning that his wife is Chinese – but called her “Japanese” instead.
He quickly corrected himself and those at the meeting laughed it off.
But the gaffe is making headlines and, as Mr Hunt himself says, it’s a “terrible mistake to make”.
Lucia Guo was born in Xian in central China. She and Mr Hunt met in 2008, when she was working at Warwick University. They have three children.
What exactly did he say?
Mr Hunt was at a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when he said, in English: “My wife is Japanese – my wife is Chinese. Sorry, that’s a terrible mistake to make.”
He explained that he and Mr Wang “spoke in Japanese at the state banquet”, before going on to say: “My wife is Chinese and my children are half-Chinese and so we have Chinese grandparents who live in Xian and strong family connections in China.”
So why was this such a gaffe?
1. China and Japan are bitter rivals
Confusing China with any other country is bad if you’re trying to curry favour with the Chinese government.
But of all the countries to get confused with, Japan is probably the worst one.
That’s because the two countries have had a particularly bitter relationship for decades. They fought each other in two Sino-Japanese wars, and are also in a dispute over territory in the East China Sea.
Among China’s older generation, there are plenty of people who are reluctant to buy Japanese products or go to Japan on holiday – because they accuse Japan of playing down its wartime atrocities.
And there were several anti-Japanese protests across China in 2012, when tensions over the disputed islands flared up.
2. He was talking about his own wife
It’s easy for anyone to make a slip of the tongue, or get confused about someone’s race.
Mr Hunt speaks Japanese and worked in Japan – and says he spoke with Mr Wang in Japanese – which might explain why it was on his mind at the meeting.
But even then, it’s awkward explaining why “Japanese” slipped out at a conference with Chinese officials – especially since he was talking about his own wife.
Speaking of which…
3. It fits a bad stereotype
There’s a common joke that East Asians “all look the same” – and many East Asians have complained that people make lazy assumptions about what race they are.
For example, I’ve had people yell “Konnichiwa” (a Japanese greeting) at me even though I’m ethnic Chinese, while my British Japanese friend has faced several “Ni Haos” (hello in Chinese) from strangers.
Most East Asians I know would agree that it’s not the worst mistake someone could make – but it’s still pretty annoying.
Mr Hunt’s gaffe may have been an innocent slip of the tongue – but it’s a pretty unfortunate mistake to have made in this context.
And, more importantly for Mr Hunt – it’s not going to impress his hosts, which was the whole point of him mentioning his wife in the first place.
4. Would it have worked anyway?
Given China’s rising status as a world power, and the clout of its consumers, lots of politicians and businesses have been trying to endear themselves to the Chinese.
But it’s easier said than done.
And having Chinese family ties doesn’t necessarily mean smooth sailing with China either.
For example, Gary Locke served as the US ambassador to China from 2011 to 2013, and made headlines for being the first Chinese-American in the role.
But he still faced criticism from Chinese media, especially when ties were strained – such as when the US embassy in Beijing gave refuge to Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.
State newspaper The Global Times made the point of reminding the public that Mr Locke was just a “normal” US politician serving Washington’s interests,despite his Chinese ethnicity.