China’s 'New' Language of Diplomacy

A notable characteristic of Chinese officials in international conferences and media is that their language is unusually blunt and rude in a manner that has done nothing to aid China’s effort to be recognized as a civilized member of the world diplomatic community.

Among Chinese officials and diplomats, politeness and respect seem absent from their discourse in international forums. After a recent visit to Vietnam, Yang Jiechi, a state councilor with a foreign policy portfolio, declared in the Chinese media that his objective was to lecture his Vietnamese counterparts.

A certain section of the Chinese media even called Vietnam a “prodigal son.” The comments were made amid a dangerous standoff between China and Vietnam in the disputed Paracel Islands. The language is patronizing and impudent. Indeed, to many Vietnamese, the reference of “prodigal son” is not only offensive, but can also be likened to an ideology of colonialism.

What’s interesting is that for a country aiming for superpower status, when the shoe is on the other foot, the Chinese dragon can be remarkably vulnerable to slights. Fang Kecheng, a Chinese blogger and master’s degree candidate in journalism at Peking University, a couple of years ago counted up the times foreign ministry spokesmen said officially that Chinese’s “feelings had been hurt.” According to Fang’s analysis, Chinese’s feelings were hurt at least 140 times by at least 42 countries as obscure as Iceland and Guatemala as well as a bunch of organizations since the Communists threw out the Kuomintang in 1949..

Typically, a statement goes like this” "The (incident/statement) grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and damaged the political basis of China-(offending country) bilateral relations."

Victor Mair, a linguist writing in The Language Log at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, decided to check how often the phrase “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” occurs in Google. The Chinese, Mair reported, had their feelings hurt 17,000 times by 2011. The country with the next most hurt feelings was Japan, with 178. Third was the United States, with five. Both actors Brad Pitt and his wife, Angelina Jolie, hurt Chinese feelings at different times, Pitt by appearing in a movie about Tibet and Jolie by inadvertently referring to director Ang Lee, a Taiwanese, as Chinese.

By contrast, China has used stiff language on a long string of countries besides Vietnam, none of which reported “hurt feelings.”

In December last year, for instance, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a vicious criticism of Australia during a televised face-to-face meeting with the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. A senior Australian diplomat described the incident as the rudest speech he has seen in his 30-year career as a diplomat.

In July 2011, Philippine officials decided to ban a senior Chinese diplomat from meetings because of his rude behavior.A memorandum from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said that the Chinese diplomat exhibited “conduct unbecoming of a diplomat.”

In her recent memoir, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed that in the 2010 Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi the then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi lost his composure and launched into a 30-minute monologue, after Asean ministers complained that China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea had triggered anxieties among ASEAN countries.

At one point Yang declared that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact” – a point that was totally irrelevant to the discussion.

That kind of rude behavior from Chinese officials is now increasingly prevalent in international political and diplomatic forums. Early this month, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the world witnessed an ill-mannered outburst from a Chinese general in response to comments from US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe.

Hagel listed a number of serious frictions in the South China Sea and warned China against "destabilizing actions." Abe talked about China's aggressive moves in the South and East China seas, and urged countries to respect the rule of law. In response, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army said that the remarks by Hagel and Abe were “simply unimaginable.” It seems clear that the general was not comfortable with facts.

In fact, rude language in China’s diplomacy is not new at all. Documents retrieved as early as the 15th Century show that Chinese emperors used such language to threaten neighboring countries that they considered barbarians. Their writing style was short and to the point, and their words utterly disrespectful.

One of Chinese emperors’ favorite usage was “China is a big country,” a construction that obviously survives today. Language and culture are transmissive. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising to see the reference to “big country” by Chinese officials.

In an ideal world, one would expect diplomats to use polite and respectful words, not patronizing expressions, to make the world better. However, that ideal seems to be a luxury for many Chinese officials. It has recently been noted that Chinese tourists exhibited "uncivilized behaviors" when they traveled overseas, and their behaviors harm the country’s image. In a similar way, those ill-mannered words – no matter what the circumstances – uttered by Chinese officials in international forums can only harm the country’s prestige and do nothing to advance their argument.

Dr. Tuan V. Nguyen is a freelance commentator currently living in Sydney, Australia