Shanghai View: To Meet or Not to Meet

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Whose World Order?
Tags: , , ,

A new post for Whose World Order? at ECFR focusing on meetings in China and the importance of them. Some of the ideas hinted at will be fleshed out in a larger paper that I should be coming out in a few weeks.

Shanghai View: To Meet or Not to Meet

Date: 27th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDalai LamaTibetUsa

Many westerners who to come China often find themselves stuck in long and seemingly interminable meetings with their Chinese counterparts. The conversation is often held in impressively fluent English that can sometimes be deceptive, making it seem as though the nuance of intended meaning is getting through while the conversation nevertheless drifts with no apparent purpose. At the end of the meeting, the Chinese participants will express gratitude for a productive and useful session, seemingly enthused by an encounter that the foreigner reflects on with bemusement.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, for some Chinese academics and low level local officials, it is often simply the act of meeting that fulfills their ambitions for the appointment. The more foreigners they meet, the more important they seem to others they work with.

Secondly, ascertaining useful information from Chinese people at any level takes a certain amount of relationship building – in Mandarin it is called Guan Xi (关). This is basically networking, and as with any network you build elsewhere, it takes effort and a few meetings before you can get to the crux of the matter. This process is a bit slower in China, and it takes a few more meetings than it might elsewhere to start developing the capacity for a frank conversation. Like many other things, this process is starting to shift in a westerly direction – networking is speeding up as the Chinese interact with more foreigners and realise how they do things. Nevertheless, whoever you are dealing with, and no matter how western-experienced they are, it always pays dividends to put in some time with the guangxi.

Thirdly and more crucially, there is the underlying message that the Chinese side was trying to impart during the meeting but did not want to say explicitly. Meetings at every level are usually littered with these implicit messages. A meeting that seems to be drifting can often be, in reality, a meeting that has an underlying message that you are simply not getting. Usually, at mid-levels, they will be a bit blunter when they see the message is not getting across. At higher levels, there seems to be more resolute belief in the Chinese system; that messages can be passed in a desperately opaque manner. Either way, meetings are key.

So when China starts to cancel meetings it is clear that there is a problem. Cancelling meetings is about as clear a message as you can send, and for the typically polite and status-fixated Chinese it is a very blunt message. The EU (and France in particular) got this full in the face when the Chinese side pulled the plug on the EU-China Summit in late 2008, in retaliation for meetings with the Dalai Lama and a raft of other perceived Tibet-related slights, which were seen as being initiated by the French.

Now it seems that they are meting out a similar punishment to outgoing US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, with the FT reporting that “Beijing cancelled several bilateral academic and cultural programmes hosted by the US after Jon Huntsman was photographed in February in the capital near where anonymous internet users had called for a demonstration…several people familiar with the matter said the ruling Communist party had also ordered provincial bosses to cancel meetings with Mr Huntsman over the past two months.”

The US is looking at retaliatory measures, including the possibility of making it harder for high-ranking Chinese officials and family members to get expedited visas.

On the one hand, this seems to be part of a broader crackdown. Diplomats in Beijing have told me about bizarre complaints they are getting from Chinese officialdom about the activities of nationals and diplomats in cities outside the capital, while foreign journalists report that they are facing an increasingly difficult work environment. One journalist I know who works for a very mainstream global news organisation told me that they got stuck waiting for a work visa for about five months.

But if China feels that it can so bluntly slap someone as senior as Ambassador Huntsman – not only the US envoy to China but also a potential future President – then something is afoot. Usually, Chinese leaders relish the opportunity to have high-profile meetings, especially with high-ranking Americans. It gives them the opportunity to look like globe-trotting leaders before a domestic audience. That they are cancelling them at the moment means either that they think the US is behind the trouble they are cracking down on within their borders, or that their sense of self-importance has been elevated to the point that they see themselves as beyond needing to play nice with their biggest partner and “frenemy,” the US.

Either way, all of this is deeply negative, as it highlights how increasingly hostile the system seems to be to outsiders. The tensions we have seen with China in the last couple of years do not seem to be subsiding, and if this FT report is accurate, they seem in fact to be getting worse.

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Comments
  1. […] oh well. Daily life feels pretty far from a police state to be honest. Addresses some points I have touched upon previously, and I am going into greater detail about in an upcoming longer […]

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