The good news about the testy televised U.S.-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18 is that both sides felt free to exercise freedom of speech. And it’s not entirely bad news that both sides used that freedom to bash one other. Several times during the televised portion of the heated exchanges, one could only feel pity for the interpreters who had to wing it when diplomats on both sides went over the time limit and deviated from script.
Chinese official Yang Jiechi brought a moment of drama to the otherwise dull meeting of masked men facing off across the cheap carpet of a second rate conference hall when he departed from prepared comments to say a few saucy things about the United States. He was visibly agitated at what he saw as a rude welcome full of snubs, slights and ritual humiliations.
“Strong smell of gunpowder and drama,” was the way Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the meeting, adding that China’s response came in reaction to “groundless attacks” by the United States.
“The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” complained Yang, a veteran diplomat who in the early years of his long and respected career, showed a great deal of enthusiasm for America. He was known to be close to the Bush family and served as China’s ambassador in Washington from 2001-2005. Although he attended college in England, his daughter went to Yale. He was the foreign minister of China from 2007-2013.
Now a member of the Politburo, Yang has a voice that carries at home and abroad. He knows when to hold and when to fold, he can turn it on and turn it off. Arguably the only Politburo member who really understands America, it is shocking to hear him exclaim, “You aren’t nearly as good as we thought you were!”
This was Yang’s reaction to the “nonwelcome welcome” from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who started things off by chastising China for falling short of U.S. standards and urging it to get in alignment with U.S. norms because the United States sees its norms as the gold standard for the rules-based international order.
What does a grizzled diplomat say to a narcissistic host who is trying to sell a dubious line of goods? “Chinese don’t eat that set.” Don’t eat what? A certain kind of dish? “Zhong guo ren bu chi zhe yi tao” is not about eating, actually, for something gets lost in translation. Word for word it means “Chinese don’t eat that set” but what that set consists of is left up to the imagination.
Was Yang making a reference to the dinner menu? Emphatically not, but more on that later. It’s not that Yang wasn’t angry. Ambiguous words can carry a great deal of heat. What Yang said in spirit is probably more akin to “the Chinese people won’t put up with that!” or “We’re not gonna take it anymore!”
Already, T-shirts are being printed and sold online with this memorably cryptic expression on it. It’s important to consider the nuances of Yang’s idiomatic unscripted statement because unlike the propagandistic pabulum prepared in advance by both sides, it cuts to the core of the matter.
The Xinhua read-out of the meeting offered predictably bland, boilerplate rhetoric: “The essence of China-U.S. relations is of mutual benefit and win-win results, rather than a zero-sum game. The two countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.”
Yang’s eight-syllable quip contained more information than reams of Xinhua commentary. Both sides started out with prepared statements packed with self-referential feel-good phrases but then tempers flared and they really got talking, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
As the Chinese say, “Fight first, friendship follows,” or “No fight, no friendship.” Blinken and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan went to great lengths to wag the finger at China for not abiding by the American way. The suave diplomat Wang Yi, and Yang Jiechi, who lived in Washington for four years, wagged the finger back.
The Chinese bristled at being lectured to but got in a few sharp retorts about America’s human rights failings, ranging from the genocide of Native Americans, the sorry history of slavery and, in reference to recent racial unrest, “the massacre of Blacks.”
Adding to Yang’s pique was the move by the U.S. to sanction 24 Chinese officials for failings of Hong Kong policy just a day before talks opened, which was interpreted as a bad faith gesture. Was it a deliberate shot over the bow to humiliate China or just inept timing?
Sumptuous banquet scenes and maotai toasts are among the most memorable images of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in 1972. Eating and drinking together makes for good optics, but it also makes for sated statesmen. A shared meal is no empty ritual but the essence of a warm welcome. The provision of sustenance, so essential even when things are going well, is even more important when things aren’t going well.
When it comes to negotiations in high finance, the better the food, the better the mood and the better the chance of an amicable deal. The stakes in the U.S.-China parley are considerably higher, involving the fate of billions of people and trillions of dollars in world trade.
So, what did the visiting member of China’s Politburo have for dinner at the end of his first day in Alaska? Instant noodles. No dinner was served, no welcome banquet given. Yang reportedly went back to his hotel room for a lonely repast. It would be funny were it not for the fact that the fates of two nuclear powers are in the balance.
Deliberate snubs and insults could inadvertently spark a downward spiral leading to war. “Chinese don’t eat that set” is a homespun way of saying it’s time to cut the nonsense and get down to serious business.
Philip J Cunningham is the author of “Tiananmen Moon,” a first-hand account of the 1989 Beijing student demonstrations.
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