Does the West have a new secret weapon in dealing with China in the person of Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister of Australia?
Rudd is the only Western leader who speaks Chinese, and his Chinese is pretty good at that. But deeper still is Rudd's understanding of China.
Australian China scholar Geremie Barme unpacks Rudd's marvelous speech, given at Beijing University last week, in which he bluntly called on China to recognize its human rights problems in Tibet.
Most Western leaders probably would have either punted or come on too strong. Rudd's tone, however, was pitch perfect.
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.
Whenever a Chinese official called me "foreign friend" (waiguo pengyou), I knew some type of horrible deal would soon be asked or expected of me.
"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. Enough with the back door, private stuff that Western powers have relied on to engage with China -- private conversations that Chinese officials can then ignore. But at the same time, stop the screaming, with its hint of "Yellow Peril," racism and fear. Rudd got it right. It remains to be seen whether others can follow his lead.