Memoirs lift the veil on diplomatic highs and lows






Chinese readers are being treated to a rare look at the workings of their normally secretive government through the unusually frank memoirs of a former foreign minister.

Ten Stories of a Diplomat, written by Qian Qichen, former foreign minister, provides many glimpses into Chinese foreign policy over the past two decades.

Mr Qian, who was named deputy foreign minister in 1982 and later foreign minister, served during a period when China was making major advances in its foreign policy. He writes about his experiences dealing with the United States, the former Soviet Union, the Cambodia question, Korea, Taiwan and the return of Hong Kong and Macau.

Mr Qian admits he wrote the book from memory. "I've never kept a diary," he says in the introduction. "This is a habit from my seven years working for the party in the underground as a young man. Leave no fragments of writing, just rely on your memory."

This is no kiss-and-tell book. Much of the content has been reported before in the memoirs of other foreign diplomats. However, many things will be new to Chinese readers. And much of the Chinese perspective, and many of the anecdotes, will be new to anyone outside the mainland government.

The most interesting chapter deals with the June 4 incident in 1989, when the People's Liberation Army opened fire on demonstrators on the streets of Beijing. The chapter deals with the incident from a foreign affairs angle. Mr Qian describes this time as "the most difficult period in Chinese foreign relations".

He was abroad on an official trip on June 4, 1989. He arrives in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro advises him to cancel a planned trip to the US, saying hundreds of reporters would ask all sorts of provocative questions. Mr Qian agrees, and gives the US a miss.

His writing portrays the then US president, George Bush, and members of his administration as naive and sometimes suppliant. The Chinese always appear to be in command, whether dealing with the US, the Russians or the French.

Mr Qian firmly criticises the American use of sanctions against China after the Tiananmen incident. "Isolating China was not necessarily in the self-interest of the US," he says. "And the Americans clearly understood this."

Shortly after the 1989 incident, "Old Bush" (as opposed to the current "Little Bush") sent a secret message to Deng Xiaoping, explaining that the sanctions were adopted under pressure from Congress and the American public. He says he hopes the Chinese leadership will "understand" his situation.

On June 21, Mr Bush sends another secret message, asking that secret emissaries be allowed to visit China for frank discussions with Deng, and the Chinese leader promptly agrees.

The emissaries, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, travel secretly to China, in a clear violation of Mr Bush's own ban on high-level exchanges. The plane even refuels in the air to reduce unnecessary stops that might attract notice.

When Deng meets the envoys on July 2, he puts the blame for the strain in relations squarely on the American response to the crackdown. Mr Scowcroft explains to Deng that the US Congress is demanding that Mr Bush adopt even more stringent measures against China, and that Mr Bush opposes this, but that his power is limited.

 Deng is unbending. "Ending this unhappy situation will depend on the words and actions of the United States," he says.

As Deng leaves the meeting, Mr Scowcroft comments that Deng is in good health. Deng replies quickly with humour "I'm old, already 85. The Voice of America has been spreading rumours that I was seriously ill and have passed away. This shows that rumours cannot be trusted."

Months later, after more secret exchanges over the coming months - which Mr Qian does not explain - Deng takes the lead and proposes a way out. He offers to allow Fang Lizhi, an outspoken astrophysicist and human rights campaigner living under political asylum in the US embassy in Beijing, to leave with his wife for the US or a third country. In return, the US must lift the sanctions against China.

Mr Qian's book devotes only a short paragraph to the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and just a sentence to the forced landing of a US spy plane on Hainan island in 2001 - both topics that Mr Qian could have commented on in detail.

Fourteen pages are devoted to France's sale of F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, a move that a frustrated Mr Qian was unable to prevent despite threats. However, there is no mention at all of President George W. Bush's decision to sell 150 F-16 fighters to the island in violation of agreements, and for good reason.

After the decision was announced, Mr Bush called in the Chinese ambassador and told him the decision had nothing to do with Beijing or Taipei, but was to win votes in Texas, where the F-16 plant was located. Since China hoped Mr Bush would defeat Bill Clinton for the presidency, it remained quiet.

There are insider anecdotes. Secretary of State James Baker once presented a long list of "so-called dissidents who have been taken into custody". Mr Qian said the list was full of mistakes. One name is Wu Jianmin, and Mr Qian says to Mr Baker: "The director general of our Information Department is called Wu Jianmin, and he's here now." Mr Wu pipes up: "I'm here." Mr Baker shoots back, to laughs all round: "Oh, so you've been released." 

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney