Chinese diplomats abandon diplomacy

May 18, 2020 13:37
The French Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador, Lu Shaye, to express its disapproval about Chinese diplomats’ allegation that France had left its older citizens to die. Photo: Bloomberg

Asked how China should present itself to the world, Deng Xiaoping used to say “韜光養晦” (taoguang yanghui) – “hide your capacity and bide your time”.

China’s ambassadors followed this wise advice for the first 40 years of the reform era. They avoided public controversy and quietly built a dense web of contacts in the countries where they were posted. They developed exchanges of people, businesses, academics and culture.

But, since the start of this year and the Covid-19 virus, China’s diplomats have abandoned diplomacy. They have become “Wolf Warriors” (戰狼), named after a series of films in which Chinese special operation fighters defeat western-led mercenaries.

Last month the website of the Chinese embassy in Paris carried a series of acerbic anonymous posts, ascribed to a Chinese diplomat. It included an article saying: “Residents of retirement homes were made to sign certificates of ‘waiver of emergency care’; the nursing staff of the Ehpad (a French acronym) abandoned their posts overnight, deserted collectively, leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease.”

The French Foreign Ministry was so angry that it summoned ambassador Lu Shaye for an explanation.

Last Friday the embassy’s Twitter account had a series of cartoons mocking U.S. President Donald Trump. One shows him smiling and saying “Just Flu”. Another shows the coronavirus chasing him up a flight of stairs, with the figure of 1.4 million confirmed cases written below.

Diplomats do not act on their own. They carry out orders of their superiors, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and, above him, President Xi Jinping.

Like his model Mao Zedong, Xi does not like the West and never lived or studied in a western country. From 1920 to 1927, Deng worked and studied in France and the Soviet Union. Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister from 1949 to 1976, studied in Japan and France.

The foreign policy implemented by Deng and his successors was to co-operate with Europe, the U.S. and other Western countries because China needed their capital, technology, management skills and markets. The criticism of China’s human rights record was an irritant which its diplomats had to bear with patience and modesty. The benefits of engagement greatly outweighed the disadvantages.

After Xi took power in 2012, this began to change.

In May 2015, Beijing issued “Made in China 2025”, which announced that the country aimed to move away from being the “world’s factory” to make high-value products and services like aerospace and semiconductors and no longer depend on foreign suppliers.

Its goals include increasing the Chinese-made content of core materials to 40 per cent by 2020 and 70 per cent by 2020. It concentrates on high-tech fields, like pharmaceuticals, automobiles, aerospace, semiconductors, IT and robotics – all sectors in which foreign companies at that time had a technological lead over Chinese ones.

This was Xi saying goodbye to the Deng era and that China did not need to rely on anyone. It was becoming a global power in economy, diplomacy and the military and needed to apologise to no-one.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened this sense of superiority. The Beijing narrative is that, after initial mistakes by officials in Hubei province, China has successfully controlled the disease, setting an excellent operating model for the world.

Due to their bad governance and inability to discipline their people and follow the Chinese example, the U.S. and European countries have suffered tens of thousands of deaths. China has donated medical equipment and personnel to dozens of countries around the world.

This is the narrative China’s diplomats are following. But they have forgotten where they are living. What they are doing and saying is appreciated by their superiors in Beijing, who greatly support their patriotism. They are faithfully carrying out their instructions.

But their efforts have backfired in the West and have turned governments and public opinion against them. In France, as in other countries of Europe, now is the time to fight and overcome the pandemic. Opposition politicians are holding back their normal criticisms of the government -- that will come after the end of the pandemic.

“Diplomacy” means dealing with issues tactfully and discreetly. If Ambassador Lu had proposals on how to solve the very serious issue of Covid-19 deaths in retirement homes, the French Health Ministry would love to hear them. It would thank him for it.

“Undiplomatic” means stating in public the weaknesses and mistakes of the person you are talking to. The ambassador has made friends in his own Foreign Ministry and Zhongnanhai – but antagonised the country and people to which he is accredited.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.