Monday, April 14, 2008

Not Just Friends, But True Friends

Australian China scholar Geremie Barnie's views on PM Rudd's dealings with China during his visit last week were some of the more insightful, and went a long way to explaining Rudd's motives behind lightly, but significantly, chastising the Chinese regime over Tibet and what exactly he meant when he talked about "friends", "friendship" and particularly "true friends".

The Washington Post picked up on Barnie's comments, and asked if Kevin Rudd is the West's "new secret weapon in dealing with China" :

Rudd's brilliance in the speech involves turning the Chinese term "friend" on its head. Friend (pengyou in Chinese) and frienship (youyi) are two of the most distorted concepts in modern China culture. In modern China, a friend is someone who will do you favors and who expects favors in return. A "foreign friend" is someone the Chinese party-state expects will carry water for them and NEVER criticize them.

"To be a friend of China, the Chinese people, the party-state or, in the reform period, even a mainland business partner," Barme writes, "the foreigner is often expected to stomach unpalatable situations, and keep silent in the face of egregious behaviour. A friend of China might enjoy the privilege of offering the occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena he or she is expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be 'objective.' that is to toe the line, whatever that happens to be. The concept of 'friendship' thus degenerates into little more than an effective tool for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity."

So what did Rudd do? He went back -- way back -- into Chinese history, to the 7th century AD, and used another word for friendship (zhengyou).

"A true friend," Rudd said, "is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship."

"Rudd's tactic," Barme wrote, "was to deftly sidestep the vice-like embrace of [the current] model of friendship by substituting another.

"A strong relationship, and a true friendship," he told the students, "are built on the ability to engage in a direct, frank and ongoing dialogue about our fundamental interests and future vision."

This type of engagement could be a model for how the West interacts with China.