Annals of agitprop

Today's category: phrases that have outlived their time.
Today's winner: "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people."

The front page of the Dec 8 edition of the (state-run, English-language, indispensable) China Daily had this item on Chinese-EU tensions, especially Chinese-French, because of Nicolas Sarkozy's recent decision to meet with the Dalai Lama:

Fair enough: it's an area of genuine contention. But then we have the quote from China's deputy foreign minister laying out the specifics of France's offense:

Ah, it "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." This is the phrase I wait for in every Chinese government statement on matters of international disagreement. 

Yes, there is a real concept buried beneath this boilerplate slogan. The concept might be expressed other places as "an insult to the dignity of our nation," or "disrespect for our people and their principles" or something. But it is generally used quite sparingly in other nations' pronunciamentos, because in the end listeners don't find it that persuasive. 

Yes, one nation should not gratuitously offend any others -- a point my recent interviewee, the Chinese mega-banker Gao Xiqing, makes very effectively.* And, yes, in many personal dealings, saying "you hurt my feelings!" may be an important part of reaching a resolution. But you don't find Talleyrand, Metternich, George C. Marshall, and even Sun Tzu recommending this complaint as a big part of international strategy. And remember, this is not some sand-bagging trick of mistranslation. These are the English words the Chinese government itself selects.

As I argued last month in the Atlantic, China's official spokesmen make the country seem far less appealing than it really is, because their sloganized responses display so little grasp of how outsiders act, think, and respond. Important evidence that my contention is out of date will be the disappearance of "hurt our feelings" from future official statements.
* The way Gao put it, talking about what he learned from hardships working on a railroad gang during the Cultural Revolution:

I learned that, from a social point of view, no matter how lowly statured a person you are talking to, as a person, they are the same human being as you are. You have to respect them. You have to apologize if you inadvertently hurt them. And often you have to go out of your way to be nice to them, because they will not like you simply because of the difference in social structure.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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