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Friends With (few) Benefits

History tells us that friendship usually comes in a very distant second place to politics


Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is President-Elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Ambassador to China.

In the wake of the announcement, there has been a lot of commentary on how Xi Jinping has a special relationship with Iowa. In 1985, he met with Governor Branstad when Xi, then a Hebei Provincial official, traveled to the state as part of an agricultural delegation. In 2012, Xi returned to Iowa and the two reconnected. Governor Branstad and Xi Jinping have also met intermittently during the six trips the governor has made to China over the years.

In a blog post for Foreign Policy last week, David Wertime and James Palmer delved into the different layers of friendship when it comes to dealing with China. To summarize: If you’re a Chinese businessman or official and you call David or James an “Old Friend,” you might as well pack up whatever it is you’re selling because they’re not buying it.

It’s an old strategy, one that has been perfected over the years. But there was a time when the “old friend” routine was still a work in progress.

The Opium War of 1840-1842 was an unmitigated disaster for the Qing Empire, but during and after the war there was a vocal group in the Qing government who felt the whole debacle might have been avoided. Many high-ranking Manchu officials, notably the chief grand councilor Mujangga, thought Commissioner Lin Zexu’s vigorous opium suppression campaign a reckless provocation which had had led the empire into military fiasco. Mujangga convinced the Daoguang Emperor to remove Lin Zexu from his posts and dispatched another Manchu official, Keying, to clean up Lin’s mess.

Keying was the scion of a noble Manchu family but an odd choice to be a diplomatic fixer. While he could claim to have been a childhood friend of the reigning Daoguang Emperor, Keying had limited understanding of the world at large, of trade policy, and, unlike Lin Zexu and the Chinese officials now blamed for pulling the empire into an unwinnable war, had almost no experience negotiating with foreign representatives.

The Treaty of Nanjing, which Qing officials signed under duress in 1842, was in the books. But Keying thought he saw an opportunity to moderate the stiff conditions imposed in the Treaty. He would travel south and meet with the newly installed British governor at Hong Kong, Sir Henry Pottinger. Keying would demonstrate through his benevolence and tolerance that even barbarians can be civilized through friendship.

For his part, Pottinger, a gruff Anglo-Irish soldier-turned-explorer-turned administrator, would seem to be a less than ideal candidate for a friendship seduction. Keying’s stated strategy of benign condescension seemed more appropriate to winning over a feral poodle than fostering understanding between two global empires. But Keying displaying the kind of confidence that convinces middle-aged fat guys that the stripper really loves them, went for it anyway.

At a banquet in Nanjing, Keying put aside his demeanor as a dignified representative of the imperial throne by tossing sugar plums into the mouth of his British counterpart.

At another dinner party, this time held at the governor’s residence in Hong Kong in 1843, Keying was fascinated by a set of miniature portraits of Pottinger’s family on display in the drawing room. Seizing on a potential opportunity to make friends and influence barbarians, Keying suggested that as he had no son of his own, perhaps he could adopt Pottinger’s eldest son, Frederick? Keying was lying of course, he had two sons already, but the establishment of fictive kinships and alliances through adoption and betrothal was a major component of the Manchu diplomacy toolkit.

Also, it’s possible that Keying was a little nuts.

Pottinger demurred a bit, telling Keying the boy needed to finish his schooling. That was enough of a “yes” for the Manchu who promptly announced from that day forward the boy would be known as “Frederick Keying Pottinger.” Keying also suggested that he and Pottinger swap wives, or at least portraits of their wives.

Ultimately, Keying’s overtures to woo the barbarians to a more civilized position failed. The Treaty of the Bogue negotiated in 1843 by Pottinger and Keying to settles details governing the execution of the Treaty of Nanjing, only compounded the indignities inflicted at the end of the war.

Keying may have thought it expedient to require foreign Consuls to administer justice to their own subjects and to agree to a Most Favored Nation clause granting to all foreign powers any concessions given to one. But consular jurisdiction meant extraterritoriality and rendered Qing officials powerless in enforcing local law against foreign nationals.

The Most Favored Nation clause prevented future negotiators from playing one power off against another, taking away the time-honored tactic of “Using one barbarian to suppress another.” Not that this ever really worked (See: Dynasty, Song).

Nevertheless, consular jurisdiction and most favored nation privileges would become two of the most onerous concessions wielded by the foreign powers over the next century.

But that wouldn’t be the end of the humiliations for Keying. 15 years after he gave away the store with the Treaty of the Bogue, Keying was charged by the court to handle another delicate mission.

In 1858, the Xianfeng Emperor dispatched Keying to Tianjin to negotiate with the British an end to the Arrow War.  The two interpreters for the British side, Thomas Wade (of Wade-Giles fame) and H.N. Lay didn’t trust Keying, and looked for a way to remove him from the negotiations. At their first meeting, Wade and Lay produced a memorial stolen by British troops the governor-general’s office in Guangzhou at the beginning of the Arrow War. The memorial had been written by Keying 13 years earlier. It described his befriending the British representatives as a ruse to subdue the gullible barbarians as well as other unflattering comments about his foreign ‘friends’. The British side argued that this disqualified Keying from being involved in the current round of talks. A mortified and chastened Keying consented to almost all the British demands for peace and then fled the city.

On his way back to Beijing, Keying was arrested at Tongzhou for having abandoned his post. After a brief debate at court, the emperor issued an edict censuring Keying for dereliction of duty, but out of respect for Keying’s service, allowed the aging and nearly blind official the honor of committing suicide. Keying died by his own hand in Beijing on June 29, 1858.

Even though things didn’t work out for Keying, his strategy has become a template of sorts. Now, there is no evidence of Xi Jinping and Terry Branstad exchanging selfies, their wives, and children or of feeding each other corn dogs. But foreigners negotiating with China would do well to remember that just because somebody is calling you “friend” doesn’t mean they necessarily want or need your friendship. Just ask Keying.


Cover image from Wikicommons

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