Thursday, July 23, 2009

The China Hand Got It Wrong

By Chip Tsao | published Jul 23, 2009

The latest nation to pay the price for offending the Chinese is Australia. Four employees of the Australian mining giant, the Rio Tinto Group (including Stern Hu, a Chinese-born “Australian citizen” and the firm’s chief iron ore salesmen), were arrested and charged with bribery and criminal espionage by China’s Ministry of State Security earlier this month.

This case has not only confused the Australians, who have long considered themselves an Asia-Pacific nation and China’s most loyal friend in the “free world,” but it also seems to have personally boggled Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd, a sinologist who speaks fluent Putonghua. Long gone are the days when the Chinese marveled at the Putonghua-speaking gweilo, whom they would offer special treatment and the most delicious dim sum because he had stooped to make the effort to understand our ancient 3,000-year-old civilization. It is thus a sad situation that the Australians have elected an in effect de-facto Chinese prime minister who could presumably please the rising dragon. But no matter how much of a point he makes to show off his Putonghua during a pilgrimage to Beijing, we remain unsatisfied with his attitude toward his Chinese neighbor. Remember when Rudd caused a tiny row when he was caught a few years ago picking his nose in public? A familiar scene, I thought, for the Star Ferry or the MTR.

As an old friend of China’s, Rudd should understand how to play the game with the Chinese. We have grown up with the tutelage of Sun Tzu’s writings about decoy tactics—you feint to the east, and attack in the west. The Chinese love to begin disputes out of the blue over some apparently trivial or silly matter to keep the baffled westerner guessing over which of his transgressions was the one that actually caused the most offense. In the case of Australia, was it the public screening in a Melbourne film festival of the pro-Xinjiang documentary, “The Ten Conditions of Love,” in which overseas Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer is hailed as a modern-day Joan of Arc? Or was it the case of Liu Hai-yan, also a Chinese-born “Australian citizen” alleged to have infiltrated Australia’s defense ministry by ingratiating himself as an intimate friend of the prime minister? Or, to go back even further, is it a subtle retaliation for the old urban legend that former prime minister Harold Holt was abducted off the Australian coast by a Chinese submarine in November 1967?

All Kevin Rudd can do is bite his nails and guess. Sure, he was caught picking his nose in public—that’s Chinese enough for most, but the truly authentic middle-aged Chinese man would use the long nail on his little finger. If I remember correctly, Rudd preferred his index finger. As a China hand, he’s still got a bit more to learn.

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