Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Outdated Foreign Service Needs Rebooting for the Age of Trump

Glitz, glamor, beauty, charm — China has all of that. It will need to use those assets better to manage the new U.S. President.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang takes a question from the media during a press conference in Beijing on July 13, 2016. 
China warned its rivals against turning the South China Sea into a "cradle of war" and threatened an air defence zone there, after its claims to the strategically vital waters were declared invalid. / AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI        (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang takes a question from the media during a press conference in Beijing on July 13, 2016. China warned its rivals against turning the South China Sea into a "cradle of war" and threatened an air defence zone there, after its claims to the strategically vital waters were declared invalid. / AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI (Photo credit should read NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine a scenario one week before U.S. President Donald Trump’s first official visit to China, when it comes. The new spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is holding a press conference about the trip. But unlike today’s typical Chinese diplomat, she was never trained as an interpreter at a language university. Instead, she graduated from an elite school like Peking University, where she majored in international relations, and studied abroad in Europe and the United States, then worked in the private sector for several years before moving to the United Nations. It shows; instead of speaking in Chinese, she addresses questions from foreign correspondents in colloquial English and greets them in different languages. Two of the foreign journalists are actually her old classmates, and she adds inside jokes as she answers their questions. The trip is already off to a good start.

It should be like this already — public image aside, China’s population is bursting with young, internationalized talent and charm. But the country’s diplomatic corps continues to come across as silent, passive, isolated, and boring, except when they are coming across as aggressive (often without meaning to). I have sat in conference rooms observing Chinese diplomats at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where I previously worked as a consultant to the Office of the Under Secretary General, and I have seen how accurate that image is. At meetings with counterparties, Chinese diplomats often go directly to their seats, only talking to each other, with no interaction or greetings with delegates from other countries. They are usually silent, except on those occasions when they read China’s position aloud from prepared scripts. When meetings are over, they usually make straight for the exits; rarely are they seen at networking events and receptions inside the UN compound. If they do attend, they often stand in the corners and talk to each other or to a handful of diplomat friends they’ve know for a long time.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping pushing an ambitious foreign policy agenda, and with an incoming U.S. president who defies all convention, China’s old-style diplomats are less suited than ever to getting the job done. It’s time for a reboot. Trump’s ascent could provide both the opportunity and the impetus for this to happen.

Above all, the Chinese MFA needs urgent reform in its personnel selection and training process. A large proportion of current Chinese diplomats have been educated as interpreters in one of China’s universities dedicated to the study of foreign languages. By training and disposition, interpreters closely follow other people’s scripts, and are punished, not rewarded, for thinking beyond that. Too few top diplomats hail from foreign studies departments at China’s top four universities, each eye-wateringly selective and offering a wide array of majors: Peking University, Tsinghua University, Renmin University (all in Beijing), and Fudan University in Shanghai.

This is a huge waste of Chinese talent. Graduates of these schools often have experience studying abroad, and have frequently interacted with foreign students from other countries, discussing politics and foreign policy. They are often outgoing, social, and have keen interpersonal and communication skills. They are also well networked; it is likely that their foreign friends will become the diplomats, journalists, opinion leaders, and business leaders of tomorrow. Were Chinese students like this to become diplomats, they would have a far more dynamic and relevant social network to enable them to better perform their diplomatic roles.

Contrast this with America’s diplomatic corps. The U.S. Foreign Service welcomes an increasingly diverse group of applicants of different educational backgrounds, with an emphasis on international relations, politics, international law, security, public policy, and economics. The age limit is far higher, at 59 years. Foreign Service Officers often join mid-career, and those careers span academia, business, government, science, or NGO work. By comparison, the educational and working experience of Chinese diplomats is cookie-cutter: many of them have graduated from language universities and joined the MFA shortly after graduation. The age limit for new diplomats, at either 35 or 40 depending on qualifications, discourages those in mid-career. By definition, those joining the MFA have less life experience, not to mention small social networks, when they join.

In China, diplomats advance for their loyalty, discipline, and language chops, not their strategic thinking, creativity, and interpersonal skills. Only Communist Party members or members of the Communist Youth League can apply to the MFA; that reduces the applicant pool by about 90 percent. Chinese diplomats often have to strictly follow rules and guidelines; where judgment is involved, they inevitably await instruction and confirmation from a higher authority. To be sure, it is essential to be serious in diplomatic endeavors; but stale, ineffective diplomacy is as likely to lead to misunderstanding and conflict as is recklessness.

Making these changes will not be easy. Chinese political scientists and political leaders deeply believe that foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. There’s good evidence for this conclusion, but the insight can be applied too dogmatically. At present, the target audience for China’s diplomatic campaigns and soft-power activities abroad are usually Chinese domestic audiences and the Chinese diaspora. It never hurts to put on an event for Chinese New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival; they look good in photos and reports send back to Beijing. But what else are they doing, and are they reaching anyone new? China’s diplomats are too reluctant to do anything that smacks of novelty or departure from past protocol. Above all, they want to avoid mistakes that could scuttle their careers. This is one reason Chinese diplomats need to leave their embassies and consulates more frequently and actively engage with local people.

A Chinese corps team with more balanced educational background could generate more creative and flexible solutions to diplomatic problems. That’s going to be vital when dealing with a Trump administration.

For one thing, a significant amount of decision-making and lobbying processes are likely to be reallocated from Washington, DC to New York. China will need to dispatch more strategists, lobby groups, and scholars to the business community in the U.S. financial capital. Instead of attending countless DC think tank forums, more Chinese diplomats and business leaders should be shuttling from one business reception to another in midtown Manhattan, which could afford them access to Trump’s children, close friends, and confidants. Imagine if Chinese business leaders worked as “part-time diplomats” to negotiate with Trump and his business cabinet. He is likely to respect their success; Trump looks set to run his country much like he ran his company, with a billionaire-dominated cabinet acting as a board of directors. Beijing could send some of its 594 billionaires to test the waters with a Trump administration, in parallel to or sometimes even ahead of diplomatic efforts. (Alibaba founder Jack Ma has already visited Trump Tower, although it’s hard to say what role Beijing had in orchestrating it.)

China also needs to make better use of that fact that it is already investing heavily in the United States. According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, China’s outbound direct investment hit an estimated $161 billion in 2016, a new record. Outsourcing medium-to-low-end manufacturing jobs and building factories in the US will offer better returns on investment in some sectors. And these labor-intensive sectors will create a significant amount of manufacturing jobs, particularly in the Rust Belt. These are decisions made by Beijing and by China’s business community, but diplomats can help play up the benefits. Imagine if Chinese diplomats persuaded Trump to attend a groundbreaking for a Chinese high-end manufacturer’s new factory in Wisconsin. After his trip to China, Trump could return to announce further Chinese investments, perhaps in U.S. infrastructure. The more ribbon-cuttings, signing ceremonies, and photo shoots China can arrange for Trump, the better for him, and for Beijing.

China will also need to dispense with its obsession with protocol, already an occasional sticking point when it interacts with a more relaxed United States. For example, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, may come to play a role in her father’s policy-making. At some ceremonies, she might replace the role of First Lady Melania Trump, who will remain in New York at the start of the administration. The Chinese protocol office must prepare to deal with more family members when receiving the new U.S. president.

Finally, Beijing needs to play to its strengths. As countless sporting events, military parades, and political rallies can attest, no one puts on a show better than the Chinese. Eventually, Trump will land in China on a state visit. (He would never consent, it’s clear, to walking out the back door to Air Force One, as President Obama did at the start of his final visit to China as U.S. President.) Trump could be greeted by a warm official reception with a red carpet, and ascend a proscenium bedecked in another auspicious Chinese color, royal yellow — which looks a lot like gold. Massive crowds assembled by Beijing authorities can cheer him, soothing his ego. President Xi, who is likely to try to develop a strong rapport with Trump, can treat Trump to a lavish reception at a huge Beijing landmark featuring rare delicacies. During the meal, Trump can enjoy a magnificent performance – given his focus on surface appearances, it would not hurt to toss in cameos from some of China’s many attractive celebrities.

When it comes to Trump, a bit of diplomatic creativity has already worked elsewhere. Take Japan, which before Election Day had appeared to express a preference for Hillary Clinton, or at least an expectation that she would win. Tokyo had been under heavy rhetorical attack by Trump during his campaign. Yet after Trump was elected, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe orchestrated a quick visit to Trump Tower, and he became the first world leader to meet in person with the then-President-Elect.

Beijing is currently taking a wait-and-see attitude toward an impulsive Trump. But his and his subordinates’ assertions about the One China Policy, tariffs on Chinese goods, and Chinese access to the South China Sea, among other hot-button issues, already threaten to put China into a disadvantageous bargaining position. Trump’s inauguration must be a wake-up call for Chinese diplomats to be more flexible and innovative, in order to effectively communicate with the President, the interest groups around him, and the American people. Doing this will require China to reform its talent recruitment and training process for diplomats, and adjust its rigid hierarchy to adapt to a brave new world.


Qiu Zhibo is an independent researcher and political consultant. She previously worked at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

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