Foreign Policy Blogs

Wu Jianmin’s Rational Diplomacy

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

On 18th June, former Chinese Ambassador to France Wu Jianmin, a senior diplomat, lost his life in a car accident. This shocked the Chinese diplomat community. Wu is a famous representative of the dovish faction in the contemporary diplomatic community of China. Many foreign observant analysts believe that he is the most rational diplomat in contemporary China. Different parties have mourned his death after the accident, including his hawkish counterparts who used to debate with him. Putting aside all sorts of conspiracy theories surrounding Wu’s death, it is worth examing the ‘Wu Jianmin phenomenon’ itself.

Wu Jianmin used to be the French translator for Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai  and became a member of the first batch of diplomats representing the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations in 1971. After that, he served as the Chinese ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands, France and other European countries. Thus Wu is widely perceived as “the expert of Europe” in China. He did not theorize his ideas like Henry Kissinger or other diplomat-turned scholars. His speeches were mainly based on his personal experiences. However, we can still summarize four fulcrums in ‘Wu’s Diplomatic Thought’:

First, Wu believed that ‘peace and development’ remains the core theme of contemporary international political agenda. Given any circumstance, war is not a wise option to choose. This is true even when the country gets involved in a sovereignty-related dispute. Directed by this thought, Wu upheld the belief of ‘win-win cooperation’ when discussing the topic of ‘power-transition moment in China-U.S. relationship’ and the South China Sea dispute. He implemented Deng Xiaoping’s principle of ‘joint development’ and believed that war could not solve problems. That is why he is often characterized as a dove.

Second, regarding the strategy of China’s development, Wu has always emphasized the importance of having an open-door policy. He believed that the closed-door policy in the earlier period of modern China has resulted in a lack of understanding of the outside world, which caused the country to lag behind the others without realizing it. Wu believed this was at the root of various man-made disasters during the Mao era and  was glad to see improvements under Deng.

Deng’s ‘Reform and Opening’ policy allowed China to be integrated with the world. The rise of China in recent years is indeed benefiting from an open policy rather than the reverse. Thus, when there were political problems in China or another country, Wu advocated maintaining close contacts with the international community at all levels. Because of this. he was criticized by the Leftist as endorsing the U.S.-led globalization.

Third, Wu insisted that the strategy of ‘keeping a low profile’ proposed by Deng Xiaoping after the Tiananmen incident is still significant today, although Chinese leaders are no longer talking about the concept anymore. Generally speaking, Wu disagreed with the aggressive doctrine in Chinese diplomatic policies. He stressed that ‘China has no intention to compete for hegemony with the U.S.’ and quoted former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s saying, ‘Keeping a low profile must be China’s policy for at least another hundred years’.

Such attitude was considered by hawks as ‘weak’, and some radicals even condemned Wu as a traitor. Wu simply did not think China had the power to seek hegemony in the foreseeable future. He did not deny that there would be a day when China could compete for it, thus he is not a liberal. Yet, to the nationalists in China, Wu’s stand was already empowering the ambition of others while downplaying China’s glory.

Fourth, Wu was on his guard towards nationalism. He was aware that there is a rise of national sentiment and populism in China and the world, and frequently spoke up and pointed out that “populism will lead to politicians that are puppeteered by nationalism” and eventually leading to the disappearance of rationality. Wu believed that “the nature of populism is to oppose reform; the nature of nationalism is to oppose opening up.” In fact, this observation was the topic of his last public speech. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the Chinese Communist Party needs nationalism as a totem to maintain its legitimacy, particularly in today’s China where the lack of faith in society is accompanied by slower economic growth. The sentiment of nationalism will only intensify, while Wu’s view and position within the system were increasingly marginalized.

The notable difference between Wu and other Chinese diplomats is that, not only that he insisted the four ideas above when he was in office, but became more active in preaching them after his retirement. He continuously preaches these ideas through ‘Track II Diplomacy’. In 2003, he served as the Dean of the Diplomatic Academy after leaving office, taught courses like ‘communication studies class’ in the hope that the ideas listed above could be theorized into a discipline. He was the Vice President of the Tenth Foreign Affairs Committee of the CPPCC National Committee and former President of the International Exhibitions Bureau, which is a multinational organization headquartered in France that coordinates World Expo. Wu became this institution’s first president from China, which has a unique symbolic meaning.

To the significant section of internet users in China, Wu was famous for his involvement in the public debate after his retirement and is perceived as a leading public intellectual in Chinese diplomatic community. Wu was not only diligent in writing and giving speeches on different occasions, he is also active in debating with the hawkish scholars and commentators in public media. This has become one of the most discussed issues by Chinese internet users. In 2014, Wu and the PLA Major General Luo Yuan, who is a famous representative of the hawk faction, had a fierce debate on the topic of ‘Chinese Diplomatic and Strategic Situation’ on Phoenix Television, pushing the ‘hawk-dove debate’ to a climax.

In April, Wu criticized the Global Times, a leading semi-official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, for inciting nationalist sentiment, misjudgment of world situations, which Wu believed were not conducive to China’s diplomacy. Later on, the chief editor of Global Times Hu Xijin, who is a self-claimed member of the Hawk faction, refuted Wu’s views on the Internet. Wu’s hectic schedule of constant traveling to deliver speeches after speeches and long working hours may even be a contributing factor in his fatal accident.

In fact, Wu Jianmin and Luo Yuan are both far away from Chinese diplomatic decision-making level and do not possess a direct policy impact. Whereas, their official contacts allow the Chinese government to take advantage of them to test the air from two sides, to convey messages so as to make policy evaluation. Hence, the hawk and dove faction in the Chinese diplomatic community are actually complementary to each other. They are responsible for balancing different situations in needs.

Whether Luo Yuan, Hu Xijin or other hawkish representatives who used to refute Wu’s view in public all express regret on the loss of a ‘critical friend’, saying that ‘a gentleman gets along with others but not necessarily agree with them’. They also dismissed the sensational news material hyped up by the opportunistic media outlets. From these observations, we could try to imagine Wu’s elegance and grace when he was alive. This also tells us that these two factions are not defending their own interests but competing for readers.

Professor Wang Jiangyu from the National University of Singapore once pointed out that Wu’s significance in contemporary Chinese diplomacy is as a ‘check and balance to nationalism and populism’. It is not easy to find another influential diplomat who is willing to take this path. Some members in Chinese diplomat community suggest that Fu Ying, who used to be the Deputy Foreign Minister and gained a reputation of elegance and visionary, could be the candidate to succeed Wu’s role after her retirement. Fu has shown a preference in attending different forums with a ‘dovish’ image, which makes her quite different from typical retired ambassadors. However, what makes Wu special is that he knew the rule of the internet age. He knew how to arouse attention. This is difficult for those who has long been in official roles.

Without Wu’s balance, it is expected that in the short term, the voice of the hawk faction will become more dominant. If Wu was alive, the responsibility of advising citizens not to overreact to the South China Sea dispute would have fallen on his shoulders. Unfortunately, we cannot hear a credible sound that is capable of assuming this role now. If one day, due to the fear of nationalism and populism, all Chinese commentators from dovish faction are sidelined, China’s future will become a real source of concern.



Simon Shen

Dr. Simon Shen is an Associate Professor & Director of Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Science and Co-Director of International Affairs Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the chairman of Hong Kong International Relations Research Association (HKIRRA). He also serves as the lead writer of a Chinese newspaper called Hong Kong Economic Journal (Global). He is a graduate of Oxford and Yale University.