China and the World

“We preferred Chirac”

Sarkozy jets to Beijing to repair Sino-French rift

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There was a warm glow to Sino-French relations between 1995 and 2007. It was an era when Chinese state visits to Paris would usually result in a large order for Toulouse-assembled Airbus aircraft. Or maybe a French nuclear reactor.

That was no surprise; the country’s then president, Jacques Chirac, was an avowed Sinophile, who shocked even the Chinese with his knowledge of their history.

On one of his trips to Beijing his erudition even tripped up his host. The Frenchman asked an aide of President Jiang Zemin if he knew how many emperors had governed during the Sui Dynasty. The answer came back: two (Wen and Yang). “Non,” replied Chirac. It turns out the aide had overlooked a little known five year-old named Gong, who survived a year before being displaced by the incoming Tang Dynasty. As historian John Man puts it, it was a bit like Jiang Zemin “being an expert on Joan of Arc”. The Chinese were mightily impressed.

Moreover, it was Chirac who described the Terracotta Army as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ and who even expressed a desire to make a film about the Tang poet, Li Bai.

But if the former president’s understanding of China was exceptional, he evidently did little to coach his successor. Nicolas Sarkozy quickly undid Chirac’s legacy by threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics – after infuriating China’s leaders with suggestions on how best to behave in Tibet. And when the Olympic torch relay was disrupted in Paris, the China Daily says relations “hit a trough”.

The response was popular agitation for a boycott of French goods and shops in China. Beijing also called off a summit to be held in Lyon. And when Premier Wen Jiabao toured Europe in 2009 he visited Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the UK and Spain – but pointedly skipped a French leg of the trip.

So, after two years of frosty relations, ‘Sarko’ was in China last week repairing the damage. In an interview prior to his departure he told Xinhua: “There have been some misunderstandings between our two countries. They are now behind us.” And after meeting his opposite number Hu Jintao, he had more kind words: “China has become an absolutely indispensable actor on the world stage. Today there is not one major issue that we can handle without you.”

Hu responded to Sarkozy’s overtures, proclaiming that the state visit had “opened a new page” in relations. And in an ironic footnote to his threat to boycott Beijing’s Olympic party, Sarkozy was the highest ranking foreign leader to attend the opening ceremony of the Shanghai Expo (see page 18) last Friday night.

His supplication earned thin returns, mind you. Any hopes of getting a commitment from Hu on a tougher line with Iran seem to have been disappointed. Perhaps his chief gain was to get Hu to confirm he will visit France in the autumn.

In fact, an article on China.com.cn – part of the State Council News Office – made clear that the rapprochement is purely on Chinese terms. Zhang Jian, deputy director of the Institute of European Studies of China wrote: “China’s policy against France has been consistent and China has never done harm to France; but it is France that finally realises its wrong practices are damaging the national interests of France.” In other words, don’t interfere with our affairs in Tibet.

Tellingly, Sarkozy was accompanied on the trip by 30 representatives of French industry, with a strong showing from the luxury goods makers. It’s not hard to see why. Sales in China are booming and Global Refund, a company specialising in tax-free shopping for tourists, said Chinese visitors outspent the Russians in France last year, forking out $220 million.

If Sarkozy’s early relations with China were derailed by principle, French pragmatism seems once more to have prevailed.


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