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Abraham Lincoln & China

November 13th, 2009

l41Barack Obama is scheduled to visit China next week, and in advance of his visit, Beijing has chosen some unusual words. To gain support for a political agenda, which includes efforts in Tibet, Chinese authorities are reminding BHO that he is black:

“He is a black president, and he understands the slavery abolition movement and Lincoln’s major significance for that movement…[We] hope that President Obama, more than any other foreign leader, can better, more deeply grasp China’s stance on protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The comments came from Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, and the media is making much of what has been said — especially this invocation of Abraham Lincoln. While the reference seems fresh and unusual, I’m afraid to say that it’s old news.

I am here thinking of Zhu Rongji’s historic visit to the United States in April 1999. During that trip, ZRJ, then Premier of the People’s Republic of China, and President Bill Clinton gave a press conference. They stood together, going back and forth over various issues. At one point, Taiwan came up. Zhu unexpectedly broadsided Clinton in front of the media by connecting the Civil War with its significance on the Taiwan question. I’ve been unsuccessful in retrieving the video, but I did manage to find a quote:

“Abraham Lincoln, in order to maintain the unity of the United States…resorted to the use of force….so, I think Abraham Lincoln, president, is a model, is an example.”

Bill Clinton’s characteristic cool was broken by the mention of Lincoln. In the press conference, he could be seen fumbling for an appropriate response. If memory serves, he may have appeared agitated. Journalists trying to place next week’s high-level meeting in historical context may wish to hunt down the video to see it for themselves.

It was not the first time that a Chinese official made use of Lincoln anyway, and Zhu may have been taking an example from his boss, Jiang Zimen. Then leader of the People’s Republic of China, Jiang was fond of quoting from the Declaration of Independence as well as from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He quoted from these when he met with US officials and found that the references suited his purpose.

This one facet of Chinese culture I find fascinating, and I’ve seen it done often. Businesspersons will take a belief or value held by the other side and use it to their advantage in negotiations. I wonder if the time will ever come when US political leaders will do the same. Instead of quoting Chinese idioms as a means of ingratiating themselves before their counterparts in China, foreign diplomats might want to learn how to use such ancient references as a way to gain political ground.

Obama may want to remind the Chinese of Mencius (孟子), an ancient Chinese philosopher, for example. A contemporary of Confucius, Mencius is arguably the second-most important thinker out of the ancient Chinese past. His thoughts on government are in fact admirable. Something that he believed: “The people are the most important element of a nation. The spirit of the land and grain are next. The sovereign is the least.”

It’s reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address, actually. You know. A government of the people, by the people, for the people…

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