Last week Wang Xining, China’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Canberra, addressed the National Press Club, a speech widely reported and more important for what Wang didn’t say than for what he did.
The small number of diplomats sprinkled around the room, recognisable for their expressions of collective polite wariness, listened carefully, perhaps hearing things differently to the Australian audience.
The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy, possibly influenced by Wang’s puckish smile, referencing Shakespeare and unhappy marriages, called his speech ‘nuanced’.
Actually, it was about as nuanced as that flat, no-arguments maiyo — no/no way — so beloved of Chinese officialdom.
The least nuanced note in Wang’s entire speech was the flat refusal to give any ground to any fault on the part of his government; Wuhan as the source of the COVID pandemic, Beijing’s tardiness in alerting the rest of us to its danger, let alone that his government had threatened Australian exports to China and cut communications with not just our trade officials, but the minister himself.
Mr Wang was signally, unequivocally – that under the current regime China would never, now or in the future, admit any wrongdoing, any breaches of human rights, any barriers to free passage in contested waters, because to do so would be a diplomatic loss of face.
Australians, in Beijing’s world view, are pretty much the same as the western barbarians who sacked the Summer Palace and demanded Hong Kong and the New Territories as reparations for the opium wars.
European nations and Japan divided the spoils of imperial China (Queen Victoria received two Pekinese dogs). China will never apologise for past or continued wrongs and we had better understand that. The Century of Humiliation will never be repeated.
The media made much of the fact that the menu featured Australian beef, barley and wine – dismissed as a childish gesture by their DCM (“See how good our food is, Sir ?”)
The real takeaway from his speech was “we understood you to be our compliant junior partner (AKA a good friend of China) and we don’t like that you went it alone, claiming Wuhan as the source of the virus.” Wang’s bland “I think it’s up to the scientists to find out the origin and also how it’s dealt with by different governments” signalled, “we do not apologise – we do not consider it to be our fault”.
China is on the way back from COVID. The recent Beer Festival in Chingdao was meant to celebrate and let the world know China is now open, again, for business negotiation.
Yet there were some topics Wang did not touch on, canny diplomat that he is.
One was that Beijing – and her fans in Australia — seeks to uncouple Australia from the US alliance. The other is the Chinese diaspora. There’s an old saying, ‘the enemy in the blanket…”
Time perhaps to remind Wang of a British strategist’s dictum, slightly adapted to suit our times: “We have no permanent friends (except one) and no permanent enemies (except. potentially, one) – only permanent (trade and commerce) interests.”
Thank you, Lord Chesterfield.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.