When a delegation from Paris visited Beijing in 1964, it wouldn’t have been impressed to hear Mao Zedong question France’s stature, describing the nation as small. But Mao told the French that he considered China to be small too. “Only an inveterate underdog such as Mao could describe France and China as ‘small’ countries,” explains Alexander Cook in the introduction to the recently published Mao’s Little Red Book: a Global History, “but his point was that nuclear arsenals had made the US and Soviet Union seem ‘big’ in a way that was qualitatively different.”
Fast forward 50 years, and the debate about China’s size has resurfaced, this time courtesy of a German politician.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Berlin last week, Angela Merkel gifted him with a 1735 map of China produced by a German cartographer. It was an odd choice of gift, to say the least. When WiC last year visited an exhibition at the National Museum displaying gifts given to China’s leaders, we did not spot a single map, while any China expert at a foreign ministry might have cautioned about Beijing’s sensitivity to its territorial borders, and thus why gifting maps. And sure enough, the German gift was soon causing controversy back in China, because of the territory that it omitted. As The Economist points out: “Whether by error or design, Mrs Merkel gave Xi an eighteenth century map that excluded Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Manchuria from China’s domains; it also seemed to exclude the islands of Taiwan and Hainan. Official Chinese media either ignored the map or substituted it with a nineteenth century one that showed China extending all the way into Siberia.”
Media and bloggers have offered various takes on the ‘Merkel map’ but one of the most popular is that it was a sly nod to the situation in the Ukraine, designed to remind China of Russia’s hegemon past. Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News said the map showed that Tsarist Russia had grabbed around 3.17 million square kilometres of Chinese territory. As a netizen also commented: “Facts talk – it’s self-evident who is China’s enemy. Thanks to Merkel’s map, we are reminded again how strict, accurate and wise the Germans are.”
Another pointed out: “Obviously Merkel was trying to arouse China’s hatred of Russia. That will benefit Europe.” The Hong Kong Commercial Daily said that the response from netzens also indicated that many Chinese favoured retaking land from Russia, much as Moscow had annexed Crimea.
Somewhat differently, others interpreted the map as evidence that Germany supported China’s case against the Japanese over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
That seems a stretch, but there was another theme to the feedback on the gift: a great deal of anger.
A lot of the weibo community felt that the map belittled China and was an insult to Chinese president Xi Jinping (often referred to online as Dada, or ‘big big’). One said the gift was “a bitter herb” that Xi had to “suffer in silence”, while another cursed Chinese diplomats for allowing Xi to lose face by accepting a defective map. “Is this friendly?” another peeved contributor wondered. “If you want to show friendship why not return one of the treasures robbed from China…”
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