Those silver-tongued spokesmen in Beijing

I have marveled many times (eg a year ago in the magazine here) at the lack of savvy Chinese government spokesmen often display when presenting their country's case and face to the world. Locus classicus #1 is the description of the Dalai Lama as a "jackal in a Buddhist monk's robes," as a government official once called him. Number Two was the handling of "authorized" protests at the Beijing Olympics last year. Anyone could apply to protest any domestic or international issue -- but the authorities rejected all such requests and locked up some Chinese people who applied.*

Now we may have candidate #3, in the form of the welcome offered yesterday by Qin Gang, the official spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, to President Obama on the eve of his visit to China. Qin observed that Obama should be especially appreciative of China's need to quash "splittist" factions in Tibet and elsewhere. Why? Because Obama's race should give him a particularly acute sympathy to the plight of enslaved peoples. From the Reuters story (additional press comment from the FT here and China's Global Times here):

"He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln's major significance for that movement," said Qin.

"Lincoln played an incomparable role in protecting the national unity and territorial integrity of the United States."...China's stance [in opposing Tibetan "splittists" was like Lincoln's, Qin said.] "Thus on this issue we hope that President Obama, more than any other foreign leader, can better, more deeply grasp China's stance on protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity," said Qin.

What is Qin talking about? This whole concept makes little sense from an outside perspective unless you recognize two taken-for-granted parts of the argument, from the Chinese point of view:

  • Black slaves in the South, before the arrival of the Union armies = Tibetan peasants under the lamas' rule, before the arrival of Mao's forces;
  • Lincoln with his steadfast insistence that the Union not be sundered = Mao and his successors with their steadfast insistence that the PRC not be "split."

The truth of the first equation is assumed by people at all levels of Han Chinese society, and is reinforced by exhibits like the one I mentioned here.
The truth of the second is a top-level tenet of Chinese government strategy. Maintain internal order; prevent "splittism" (whether in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, or elsewhere); and develop the economy -- with those three propositions, you can predict quite a bit of what the government will do.

If you were going to argue a case to an audience inside China, you would do well to be aware of those assumptions in the listeners' minds. But if -- as with the Foreign Ministry spokesmen -- you were making a case to the world at large, you would do well to realize that Americans won't automatically think "Oh, yes, Abraham Lincoln was just like Hu Jintao" or "Oh, those Tibetan lamas were just like Simon Legree." The main point again is the tin-ear touch, the failure to recognize how these arguments will come across outside the People's Republic.

Here's hoping that we've seen an atypically awkward beginning to what will be a successful trip. FWIW, yesterday on Tom Ashbrook's On Point program, from WBUR in Boston, I discussed Obama's Asian trip along with Susan Shirk of UCSD and Shen Dingli of Fudan in Shanghai. The program is here.
* For Chinese readers, a reminder: the point of my article is that the reality of modern China is much more varied, open, and flexible than the spokesmen manage to convey. So we have an official PR apparatus that generally succeeds in making the country look less appealing than it really is.