Ping pong, panda and China’s not so harmonious diplomatic symphony

I can understand why John Pomfret,  a senior China correspondent from the Washington Post, would strive desperately  to convince his readers that China’s international reputation has remained largely unscathed despite the recent ugly displays of racial nationalism in China and among Chinese nationals overseas.  After all, his job would be on the line, should international condemnation trigger a Boxer-Rebellion-style anti-foreign campaign in China.  I am sure many US investors and American expatriates in China will share John Pomfret’s anxieties.  However, one might ask if Mr Pomfret is still sufficiently sentient  to acknowledge the interests of his readers to know the true conditions of damages, not to mention the potentially dangerous consequences, of the current recrudescence of nationalism in China.

I really doubted whether Pomfret’s ethics would be so charitable or even be subordinated to any kind of uncynical integrity,  after I read his latest blog post titled “China’s Harmonious Diplomatic Symphony“.  Of course Pomfret’s admirers might argue that Pomfret has lived among the Chinese for such a long time that he has finally learnt the art of double-speaking.   I will let you read the following excerpts from his post and judge it for yourselves:

While its propaganda machine might be sounding a little shrill lately, China’s foreign policy is hitting all the right notes.

Pomfret then cites Hu Jintao’s meeting with Taiwan’s President elect, and Hu’s visit to Japan, and the meeting of  several Chinese officials with the Dalai Lama’s envoy, and the concert at the Vatican, as examples of the putative “harmonious symphony” of Chinese diplomacy.

But I would like to draw your attention particularly to the following paragraph about Hu’s 5-day visit to Japan.  Here are John Pomfret’s own words:

What’s more, last week, Hu spent five days in Japan using “smile” diplomacy with China’s Asian nemesis. By all accounts, it was a pretty successful trip, a stark contrast to complete disaster that occurred when Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998 and gave a screaming lecture about history. The lecture played well in China but not anywhere else. China and Japan have reason to buddy up. Last year, China replaced the US as Japan’s biggest export market – a trend that isn’t going to change.

Incidentally, the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) also carries a report of Hu’s Japan visit.  While acknowledging the Tokyo meeting was a ground-laying endeavour with a potential of improving diplomatic ties, Christopher Johnson from CSM further clarifies:

Ping pong and pandas buoyed the five-day visit, but tougher issues, such as dispute over energy exploration, went unresolved.

Hu’s apparently conscious – conscious in the stupid way of the Maoist precedent which has informed it – attempt to reenact Zhou Enlai’s “ping pong and panda diplomacy” indicates that the CCP, under Hu Jintao’s leadership, is incapable of coming up with an original strategy to keep China’s economy open while maintaining a firm grip on one-party rule.  The Party’s recent attempts to tap into fermenting nationalistic sentiments in order to deflect public attention from problems brought along by soaring commodity prices, energy shortages and the stock market crash, have proved to be risky and ineffective.  Instead, China has infuriated the international community.  The country is now on the verge of retreating to its post-1989 isolation, which will be followed inevitably by a major recession.  So if Mr Pomfret were honest in his assessment, he would have admitted that Hu Jintao’s recent international manoeuvring was not a diplomatic success.  It was, and is, nothing more than an attempt to salvage China’s deteriorating international reputation.  From what I can see, Hu Jintao may have to do a bit more than regurgitating old cliches in order to keep his head above the water.


This entry was posted in Beijing Olympics, Under the Tree and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Ping pong, panda and China’s not so harmonious diplomatic symphony

  1. Ned Kelly says:

    Catherine, “you don’t understand China!”

    (Insert ten thousand “sarcasm” emoticons here, because Catherine IS CHINESE!)

  2. Adriana says:

    (sarcasm on)

    Of course, she does not understand China.

    She does not have a Ph.D. from a prestigious Universtity on the subject of “Understanding China”, nor has been ever been named a pundit. Has she ever met Henry Kissinger????

    You know that you cannot know anything unless you have a degree from a reputable University to attest to it…

    (sarcasm off)

  3. Peter says:

    Catherine, great post! Based on his background one would expect John Pomfret to be willing and able to make explicit the crucial connection between Hu’s recent actions (representation) and China’s deteriorating international reputation (reality). It is exactly that vast discrepancy between rhetoric and reality that’s bugging me, particularly in relation to Ken’s last post “Gooble gobble, one of us!” that also fits in with my own observations. John Pomfret and others who get paid for providing insightful analyses should poke into that bubble of rhetoric rather than sustain (or help create) it. Thanks for doing their job for them!

    Of course it’s been an age-old Chinese stratagem for Chinese leaders to “regurgitat[e] old cliches in order to keep [their heads] above the water.” And in a setting in which most alternative voices (within China and beyond) are either silenced or co-opted into silence this strategy has worked wonders. So I’m not sure whether Hu really needs to do more…

  4. Peter says:

    … Sorry, I meant to write “Ned’s last post”, not “Ken” (whoever that is) …

  5. C.A. Yeung says:


    Thanks for the Kissinger joke. It reminds me of episode 2 of the South Park Imaginationland Triology, when Kurt Russell was recruited to head a troop through a portal into the Imaginationland. Kurt was considered a suitable candidate because he was in “that one movie that’s kind of like this”.

    As for the first part of your “question” about academic credential, the unfortunate fact for me is that: yes I do have that kind of degree; yes it is on a relevant area; and yes it is from a very famous university. But I consider this as irrelevant when it comes to blogging about China. The only trouble is: now I can’t laugh at your joke. As Cartman would have said in a situation like this: “Goddammit!”

  6. Ned Kelly says:

    Actually, Peter, my last post with the video of the Freaks chanting “Gooble Gobble” was intended as an allusion to the way expats-in-China who stay there too long tend to be, or to turn into, sick sad sacks of sh–. You know the type, serial pedophiles, drug addicts, psychotics, patrons of massage parlors and/or gay bathhouses picking up toy-boys…things haven’t changed much since the time of the Boxer Rebellion when the Chinese noticed all too well the creepiness, venality and sleaze of the expat “community”.

    But in a way, you’re interpretation of the Freaks’ “Gooble Gobble” accords with mine.

  7. Ned Kelly says:

    Oh and Catherine, is this the Cartman video you’re looking for?

    In any case I think I’ll send it to Pomfret.

  8. lirelou says:

    Actually, I rather liked Pomfret’s latest “Why China will (not) rule the world” or some such. ( Also, being of a particular nationality does not guarantee that one is gifted with an insight for prescient analysis on their own country and culture. Granted, they already have the requisite language and cultural skills. But analysis often requires looking from the outside in, which many natives are incapable of doing, particularly since their analysis must often be framed in response to their employer’s strategy or goals. Some of the worst analysts I’ve known have been natives of the regions they were analyzing. As an example: In the late 1990s a major corporate entity with interests in Panama wanted to know: 1) Who the next president would be? (i.e., who to suck up to before the election); 2) Whether a referendum authorizing Panamanian Presidents to seek reelection would pass? (i.e., would influence their response to question #1), and whether or not the Panamanian government would allow the U.S. to keep a small counter-narcotics base in Panama after 1999. (i.e., government contracts in support of remaining U.S. forces). To their credit, these were not easy questions to answer. Unlike esoteric governmental agencies, these answers would not gather dust in some obscure file, but would be out there for the chief executives and CEO to see within a matter of six months to a year. The team that provided this analysis consisted to four native Spanish speakers, two of whom had been born and raised in the country. None had a degree from any respected university, and none had ever read in Latin-American politics or history. Unsurprisingly, their analysis resulted in three wrong answers. The opposing party won the election. The referendum to amend the constitution to allow presidential reelection was unanimously rejected by Panama’s citizenry, and after dragging out negotiations on the counternarcotics base until the very eve of U.S. Forces withdrawal, the Panamanian government said “Hell, No!” to even a continued U.S. governmental civilian presence (other than the standard diplomatic one). The bottom line is that the line: I (my wife, father, mother, etc) am (Albanian, Zulu, whatever) does not qualify one (or one’s wife, mother, father, etc) as an expert in that particular country’s culture or affairs.

Comments are closed.