Tea Leaf Nation
I Think That Chinese Official Really Liked Me!
Trump's pick for U.S. Ambassador to Beijing is apparently 'old friends' with President Xi Jinping. That will mean very little.
“Friendship’” is everywhere in China, at least when it comes to dealing with foreigners. International societies are friendship associations. The stores once accessible only to foreign currency holders were called Friendship Stores. Provincial cities court friendly partners abroad. Peace Corps staff, after being slammed too often in Maoist propaganda to make the name palatable, were rebranded as “U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers” when they were finally let into the country. The highest honor bestowed on foreigners is the Friendship Award.
That might make it seem as if “friendship” actually matters. Take the case of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whom U.S. President-elect Donald Trump plans to tap as the next U.S. Ambassador to China. Branstad is supposedly an “old friend” of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a relationship built up on the back of agricultural visits when both were provincial and state-level officials. Branstad doesn’t speak much Chinese, and Xi doesn’t speak much English, and yet the sweet nothings exchanged via interpreter have evidently been enough to forge a relationship, the two perhaps joined by a shared love of corn.
It hopefully goes without saying that people in China are eminently capable of warm and enduring personal friendships. But in the context of international diplomacy, the distinct creature of an official “friendship” is a Band-Aid at best, and proves awfully fleeting as soon as realpolitik intervenes. The People’s Republic of China’s first official “friendship” was with the Soviet Union, until it ended in mutual denunciations and blood on the ice. China’s grizzly 1979 invasion of Vietnam started through the Friendship Pass. In 2012, a police guard had to be put on Beijing’s large Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital lest it be attacked by anti-Japanese mobs furious about the squabble over the Diaoyu Islands.
Claimed personal friendship in service of a diplomatic or business objective is even more meaningless. The average Chinese official will refer to someone as an “old friend” after the second meeting. Meanwhile, supposed experts in dealing with China often point to the importance of relationship, or guanxi, for doing business. But actual guanxi, which can often bind Chinese officials together in a code of silence, is built up through a mixture of shared backgrounds, favor-trading, masculine bonding, and, sometimes, mutual blackmail. Branstad and Xi don’t have that; they have never gone to the same school or served on the same Party Committee as young men, they aren’t somehow related by marriage, and it’s safe to assume they’ve never split a bribe. Those are the real markers of trust in China, not glad-handing at occasional conferences.
It’s better to think of friendship as merely a necessary but not sufficient precondition to getting things done in China. In order to receive a regulatory approval, close a deal, or ink a new diplomatic initiative, counter-parties must in the first instance have a baseline of civilized rapport. Then again, in what country is that not the case? It’s hard to imagine any of those things happening anywhere against a backdrop of open hostility.
More dangerously, because friendship has such a fuzzy meaning, anyone can proclaim to have it. More often, declarations that one has or is busy building the stuff can be used to paper over a failing venture, or underlying inadequacies in one’s country-specific knowledge. A foundering negotiation process can be explained away as relationship-building. A resident expat or firm can boast vaguely of in-country ties, whatever the reality. And local hucksters can bamboozle unwary foreigners by trading on connections they may not actually have.
Ultimately, the precondition to successful business and diplomacy in China is exactly what it’s always been: the alignment of concrete interests. A visitor to the megacity of Chongqing representing a U.S. “friendship city” once complained of being unable to get a single meeting there. As a participant in the U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers program, one author of this article was repeatedly reminded that it should have been called the “China-U.S. Friendship Volunteers program,” with the host country first. When the United States was forging diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, even Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai’s oft-cited bonhomie would have meant nothing without a shared desire to stick it to the Soviet Union.
Xi, of course, is in a position to do as he pleases to help his actual friends. But none of his actions so far have indicated any particular inclination toward the United States. In fact, when interests diverge, longstanding friendships can be quickly forgotten. After all, Xi stayed in Iowa in 1985, and more recently sent his daughter to Harvard College; none of that has stopped him from warning repeatedly of the poisonous influence of Western culture and thought, or overseeing a massive island-building spree in the South China Sea under the nose of the U.S. Navy.
None of this is Branstad’s fault. Some familiarity with Xi is better than none; Branstad is a solid and conventional choice, which may provide a small measure of predictability and comfort to Beijing, not to mention the American business community in China. But when it comes to a host of thorny issues in the bilateral relationship, Donald Trump will call the shots. If Xi and the Politburo feel that China’s interests are being threatened, or that accommodation with the United States is a political risk, then all the friendship in the world won’t mean a thing.
Photo by Steve Pope/Iowa Governor’s Office via Getty Images