Japan from the inside out

How (not) to deal with China

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 13, 2008

JOHN POMPHRET, editor of the Washington Post’s Outlook section, runs a blog on the Post website called Pomphret’s China. For his posts, Mr. Pomphret uses the experience gained from serving as that newspaper’s Beijing bureau chief for six years.

In his latest entry, he gushes over a linguistic device that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who is fluent in Chinese) used during a recent speech at Beijing University. He suggests that Western countries could employ it as a model for dealing with China in the future. Mr. Pomphret seems to contradict himself in the post, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The piece is headlined, “Australia to China: Let’s Not Be Friends”. It contains an explanation of the connotations of the word “friendship” as it is applied to foreigners in China today:

Rudd’s brilliance in the speech involves turning the Chinese term “friend” on its head. Friend (pengyou in Chinese) and frienship (youyi) are two of the most distorted concepts in modern China culture. In modern China, a friend is someone who will do you favors and who expects favors in return. A “foreign friend” is someone the Chinese party-state expects will carry water for them and NEVER criticize them.

Whenever a Chinese official called me “foreign friend” (waiguo pengyou), I knew some type of horrible deal would soon be asked or expected of me.

Here’s what Mr. Pomphret thought was brilliant:

So what did Rudd do? He went back — way back — into Chinese history, to the 7th century AD, and used another word for friendship (zhengyou).

“A true friend,” Rudd said, “is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship….A strong relationship, and a true friendship,” he told the students, “are built on the ability to engage in a direct, frank and ongoing dialogue about our fundamental interests and future vision.”

Clever perhaps, but brilliant overstates it by more than a bit. The contradiction is the declaration in the headline—let’s not be friends—with Mr. Rudd’s actual use of the phrases “true friend” and “true friendship”.

Mr. Rudd’s assertion that “a true friend…is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship” comes across as empty political boilerplate. Read it over a couple of times and watch how quickly it evaporates. Then try to imagine how convincing the Chinese found it.

Mr. Pomphret’s enthusiasm for the Australian PM can perhaps be ascribed to a practice common among the mass media, in which a newspaper or broadcaster tends to lionize those people with whom it shares political viewpoints.

The blogger seems to have forgotten, however, that one G8 nation has considerably more diplomatic experience with China than the others. And he probably wasn’t aware that a prominent politician from that country also used the Chinese language to tell them to knock off the friendship talk and get down to brass tacks. Former Japanese Foreign Minister Aso Taro—who might well become Japan’s next prime minister—described his 2006 meeting with then-Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing during an interview published in the February issue of Shokun! magazine.

Here’s what Mr. Aso said. The translation is mine:

“The chief characteristic of the Chinese government’s diplomatic stance is to give priority to their own benefit. They’ll join hands with anyone if they think it will be beneficial to them. They are a formidable country in that regard. I’ll give you an example.

“This happened during my meeting with the Chinese foreign minister in Doha, Qatar, in May 2006. Talks (between our countries) at the foreign minister level had been suspended for some time. Li Zhaoxing kept going on and on about Japan-China friendship, but I just brushed it off and told him, “I’m not interested in that at all.” An approach and response based on emotions will at times be very damaging to the national interest.

“He seemed suspicious of what I was saying, so here’s what I told him. I said that what we needed was “Japan-China Mutual Benefit”, and we should both recognize that Japan-China friendship was a means to that end. I took out a piece of paper, wrote 日中共益 (Japan-China mutual benefit) in kanji on it and handed it over to him.

“When the meeting was over, he immediately came over to me and quickly extended his hand for a handshake.”

As Mr. Aso noted elsewhere in the interview, there hasn’t been any Japan-China friendship during 1,500 years of diplomatic relations. (He wasn’t taking a hard line; he was just stating the facts as he saw them.) But he also pointed out that an examination of the long bilateral relationship shows the Japanese can disregard a few years of chilly ties without having to worry about it.

Rather than follow Mr. Pomphret’s suggestion that the West use Mr. Rudd’s approach, the better course might be to take a tip from Mr. Aso and the Japanese experience. Bilateral friendship implies shared values. The Chinese nation is a totalitarian hegemon without a shred of respect for human rights. What advanced democracy shares such values as the forced sterilization of women and the absence of free elections?

The Australian prime minister knows enough Chinese to refuse the dubious distinction of “foreign friend”, and has enough wit to make a point by employing a linguistic gambit. Unfortunately, that is as likely to influence the Chinese as a Free Tibet bumper sticker.

Mr. Rudd suggests that friends look beyond benefit to engage in an honest dialogue. The Japanese foreign minister understands that the Chinese accept no nation as a friend unless they benefit from it, and they’re not at all interested in honest dialogue on someone else’s terms. He knows that for China, “the broader and firm basis for…sincere friendship” is their own self interest.

Mr. Rudd’s fluency in Chinese is an advantage when talking to university students in Beijing, but Mr. Aso’s more practical approach is an advantage when actually dealing with that country in a bilateral relationship.

That’s because he speaks their language.

One Response to “How (not) to deal with China”

  1. Aceface said

    Well…one thing I can say both Aso Taro and Kevin Rudd have in common.
    They TALK.And talk only.And words are pretty meaningless when dealing with people who believe political powers grows out of barrel of a gun.They might perhaps listen to soft spoken big stick carrier like the U.S,India or Russia.But Beijing has no ears listening to light weights like Japan and Australia.

    I’m actually surprised about pundit like Geremie Barme is so open handed about Rudd.Perhaps he was consulted with this speech beforehand?

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