China and Russia have governments that agree on many issues and leaders that purport to be good friends. But it is often the case that the people have little affection for each other.
Ordinary Russians can be racist towards Chinese and they worry about China’s rise. For their part, many Chinese are dismissive of the Russian work ethic and nurse historic resentments stemming from the loss of land to Tsarist Russia in 1860 or the political parting with the Soviets that began in 1956.
Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have acknowledged that people-to-people contact is the weakest link in the bilateral relationship. So why would a Chinese diplomat write an offensive, threatening email to a Russian newspaper?
The answer, say observers, is that China’s diplomats are under instructions to be more assertive and to push back in cases where the country’s intentions are questioned.
In recent months there have been several examples of China’s overseas representatives behaving in a decidedly undiplomatic manner. Its ambassador in Sweden labelled the local police “inhumane” in one row last autumn (see WiC425) and the Chinese ambassador to Canada accused Ottawa of “white supremacy” over its arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in December.
The foreign minister of Papua New Guinea even had to call the police to stop Chinese officials barging into his office during an APEC meeting last November, when they wanted him to change the summit’s communiqué. Such is the more antagonistic style that China’s foreign minister Wang Yi even faced questions about it from international media at this month’s Two Sessions parliamentary gathering.
His response was that “wherever we are in the world [Chinese diplomats] will firmly state our position”.
In an article titled “Diplomatic outbursts mar Xi’s plan to raise China on the world stage” Bloomberg cited another expert as saying that Beijing is rewarding diplomats that advocate China’s stance more aggressively.
In which case Gou Yonghai, the press attaché in Moscow, is probably in line for a major promotion.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta – the Moscow-based newspaper which received his email – Gou was threatening to put a journalist on a visa “blacklist” for writing about China’s economic slowdown and its potential impact on social stability.
“I tell you categorically and in all seriousness to take that article down from your website,” Gou warned, before mocking the size of the Russian economy and questioning President Putin’s popularity.
“You lie!!! What economic slowdown??? Our economy grew at 6% last year, what kind of growth did you have? The GDP of just Guangdong province is bigger than the whole of Russia’s,” he taunted.
“I felt social instability in Russia after Putin’s State of the Union address,” he added dismissively.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta is a newspaper with a dwindling readership and few would have noticed the article on the Chinese economy if Gou hadn’t reacted so angrily.
Since the newspaper published the diplomat’s missive, interest in the original piece has grown substantially.
The incident is interesting in other ways. For example, the Russian Foreign Ministry did not respond to Nezavisimaya’s requests to raise the matter with the Chinese embassy. That’s probably because by publishing the diplomat’s letter Nezavisimaya was thought to be casting a negative light on the Russia-China relationship – one that Moscow would like to keep on much more positive terms.
Many Russians don’t like their government’s efforts to deepen ties with the Chinese, which picked up pace in 2014 after the West slapped sanctions on Moscow for annexing the Crimea.
Some opponents of the shift say it is dangerous to rely too heavily on China as a market for Russian goods because it gives the buyer too much power to dictate the terms. Political analysts worry about a similar asymmetry in diplomatic relations.
After Nezavismaya published Gou’s letter some of its readers also took to social media to denounce the sense of “superiority” in his tone and warn that this was the “true face of China”.
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