In a less politically correct time, official Chinese rhetoric simply dismissed foreigners as savages or barbarians. At the centre of earthly civilisation, the Middle Kingdom had all it needed, argued imperial officials, and they closed off the country to most outsiders.
It led to a traumatic reckoning. European naval powers humiliated the nineteenth century Qing court with demands for territory and trade, and the young republic that succeeded it was faced with a Japanese occupation.
After the communist victory in 1949, isolation beckoned again. But Chinese diplomats realised that they did need some international allies, and that meant updating their vocabulary for describing foreigners. Barbarian no longer seemed to cut it. “When Chinese officials practice diplomacy they prefer to talk about feelings and relationships rather than interests,” Zhang Qingmin, professor of International Relations at Peking University, told Southern Weekly magazine. “So the title ‘old friend’ emerged as a substitute.”
In fact, Zhang has done more than identify the moniker. Instead, he’s trolled the archives of state-run newspaper People’s Daily and come up with at least of 601 people said to have earned China’s ‘old friend’ status. His list includes some predictable entries like Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, as well as US political figures Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. But it also includes some unexpected pals (and currently in need of a few friends of their own) like Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The list is heavily pragmatic. It starts out focusing on foreign doctors who volunteered during the war with Japan (like Bethune), and then goes on to include post-colonial ‘third world’ leaders. But the bulk of the old friend names were added after 1977, when China began reaching out again in diplomatic terms.
There are also some surprises on the nationalities on the list. Not many Russians, for instance. The reason, apparently, is that when relations were good with the Russians they were considered comrades, a few notches up on friendship status. Then they famously fell out.
Also a little counter-intuitive is that Japan tops the list in total numbers of ‘old friend’ names. WiC has written frequently about anti-Japanese sentiment in Chinese society. But it seems that the Chinese leadership has been more pragmatic in its approach to relations. Japanese prime ministers may get a ticking off every now and then, but they have a great chance of formal recognition. From 1972 to 1996, 10 out of 14 people holding the position received the title.
More recently businessmen and industrialists have started to crop up more regularly. For this group, gaining the ‘old friend of China’ distinction is clearly a valuable asset for doing business, although ‘old friend’ Jeff Immelt must have tested the bounds of amity when the GE boss gave a speech in Rome that was highly critical of Chinese treatment of foreign businesses (see WiC68).
Old friend status can still resonate widely with ordinary people. Xinhua reported that 300,000 people paid their respects at the graves of Bethune and Indian Dwarkanath S Kotnis during the ‘tomb sweeping’ festival earlier this month. (Kotnis was also a volunteer doctor during the 1930s).
So far in 2011 there have only been two mentions of the title, and neither has the same emotional appeal as some of the earlier recipients (with apologies to Spain’s Juan Carlos I, as well as the chairman of the organising committee of the Asian Winter Games).
Professor Zhang also thinks the tradition could soon die out. “The trend towards pragmatic diplomacy means that China is conforming much more with international practice,” he told Southern Weekly. “The original meaning of ‘old friend’ is fading gradually.”
Given that China voted for sanctions against Libya at the UN, old pal Gaddafi would probably concur that friendship has its limits, too.
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