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The delicate art of saying nothing

In a press conference in 1963, Western journalists asked what weapon hit a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft from Taiwan, and Chen Yi, the then foreign minister, replied, “We poked at it with bamboo sticks.”  Today, the world has changed, and Chinese diplomatic language has developed into a whole new system that’s much less humorous while adopting a programmed style. It takes more than a little decoding to understand it, so, everyone, here’s a bit of a cipher.

Friends with (Diplomatic) Benefits

Like all diplomatic language, when the term “friendly” is used, it does not always mean friendly. But a good indicator of sincerity is when it is used in conjunction with the word “amiable”, for example:

The conversation was carried out under amiable and friendly circumstances.
Tánhuà zài qīnqiè yǒuhǎo de fēnwéi zhōng jìnxíng. 谈话在亲切友好的氛围中进行。

Although, it should be noted that such a conversation is purely social and entirely unimportant. When the conversation is not just friendly, but is also carried out “seriously” (认真的 rènzhēn de) or “candidly” (坦率的 tǎnshuài de), it usually signifies the opposite of a close relationship. These talks are often carried out when in disagreement and/or conflict. For example, former Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China in 1972, and had a “serious and friendly” talk with China’s then Premier Zhou Enlai, and the communication was, again, noted as being “serious and candid”. During these talks, China concluded that the two countries had been in an “abnormal relationship” (i.e. long-term, burning hatred) and that it should be brought to an end.

So, who’s a friend? Well, the most well-known code here is to call a person or a country “an old friend of the Chinese people”. If this is said, things are probably going along nicely. For example:

Xi Jinping praised Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh as old friends of the Chinese people, who have made important contributions to the development of the Sino-India relationship.
Xí Jìnpíng zànshǎng Suǒníyà-Gāndì hé Xīn’gé shì Zhōngguó rénmín de lǎo péngyǒu, chángqī yǐlái wèi Zhōng-Yìn guānxì fāzhǎn zuò chūle zhòngyào gòngxiàn.
习近平赞赏索尼娅·甘地和辛格是中国人民的老朋友,长期以来为中印关系发展做出了重要贡献。

Truly affectionate friendships can usually be found between China and its old third-world comrades who fought together against the imperialist, capitalist dogs. For example, one can find such diplomatic speech used in the relationship between China and Zimbabwe; it’s abundant with unalloyed warmth and affection:

Chinese people will never forget old friends who have stuck through thick and thin together and understand and support each other.
Zhōngguó rénmín yǒngyuǎn bú huì wàngjì céngjīng fēngyǔ tóngzhōu、xiānghù lǐjiě hé zhīchí de lǎopéngyǒu.
中国人民永远不会忘记曾经风雨同舟、相互理解和支持的老朋友。

China is willing to continue the long friendship with Zimbabwe and strengthen cooperation in various aspects. China and Zimbabwe should be good friends, good partners, and good brothers who treat each other fairly, support and benefit each other, and develop hand in hand.
Zhōngfāng yuàn tóng Jīnfāng yídào, hóngyáng chuántǒng yǒuyì, jiāqiáng gè lǐngyù hézuò, zuò píngděng xiāngdài、xiānghù zhīchí、hùlì gòngyíng、gòngtóng fāzhǎn de hǎopéngyǒu、hǎohuǒbàn、hǎoxiōngdì. 中方愿同津方一道,弘扬传统友谊,加强各领域合作,做平等相待、相互支持、互利共赢、共同发展的好朋友、好伙伴、好兄弟。

And if you can’t get into bed with Mugabe, who can you get into bed with? The somewhat lavish use of repetitious structure here can be confusing, but in Chinese rhetoric it is a simple parallelism, frequently employed to show intense emotion in diplomatic language. However, all words fall pale and powerless in front of the intense friendship that is the ultimate, undying brotherhood of that between China and Cuba:

China cherishes its long friendship with Cuba. No matter how the international situation changes, China will always adhere to the everlasting friendship with Cuba, which is an established policy.
Zhōngfāng zhēnshì Zhōng-Gǔ chuántǒng yǒuyì, búlùn guójì xíngshì zěnme biàn, jiānchí Zhōng-Gǔ chángqī yǒuhǎo shì Zhōngfāng de jìdìng fāngzhēn.
中方珍视中古传统友谊,不论国际形势怎么变,坚持中古长期友好是中方的既定方针。

We are determined to deepen our sincere, loyal friendship, cooperate on a mutually beneficial basis, and be partners in reforms and development.
Wǒmen yào jiāndìng bùyí shēnhuà gāndǎn xiāngzhào de yǒuyì, jiāndìng bùyí kāizhǎn hùlì shuāngyíng de hézuò, jiāndìng bù yí zuò gǎigé fāzhǎn de huǒbàn.
我们要坚定不移深化肝胆相照的友谊,坚定不移开展互利双赢的合作,坚定不移做改革发展的伙伴。

Ah, young love based on Cold War politics and a mutual, perpetual distrust and hatred of the US. Get a room, you two.

Hurting the Chinese People’s Fellings

A classic but mild level of protest and condemnation is for the Chinese government to “reproach strongly”.

The China-related remarks recently made by Australian senator Palmer are unreasonable and ridiculous. We reproach it strongly.
Àodàlìyǎ liánbāng zhòngyìyuán Pà’ěr mò jìnrì shè huá yánlùn shífēn wúlǐ、huāngtáng, wǒmen yǔyǐ qiángliè qiǎnzé.
澳大利亚联邦众议员帕尔默近日涉华言论十分无理、荒唐, 我们予以强烈谴责。

A higher level of condemnation is “a strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition”. Make sure to always use the two phrases together, although it doesn’t matter which comes first. It is always applied in response to perceived offensive gestures against China. Of course, the term is most often applied to China’s relationship with its old pal, Japan:

China expresses a strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition [against Japan’s latest defense white paper].
Zhōngfāng biǎoshì qiángliè bùmǎn hé jiānjué fǎnduì.
中方表示强烈不满和坚决反对。

Also, there is the United States’ constant harassing of China on human rights issues:

China expresses firm opposition and strong dissatisfaction towards this. We urge the United States to immediately correct its wrongdoings, and cease all words and deeds that interfere with China’s domestic affairs.
Zhōngfāng duì cǐ biǎoshì jiānjué fǎnduì hé qiángliè bùmǎn. Wǒmen yāoqiú Měifāng lìjí jiūzhèng yǒuguān cuòwù zuòfǎ, tíngzhǐ yīqiè gānshè Zhōngguó nèizhèng de yánxíng.
中方对此表示坚决反对和强烈不满。我们要求美方立即纠正有关错误做法,停止一切干涉中国内政的言行。

How the US (or “Western media” as is commonly cited) interfered is not important, but the important thing to take away is: China mad! China smash!

An upgraded version of condemnation is “solemn representations and strong protest”, which usually indicates a really serious injury to China’s interests or dignity.

An occasion, for example, would be Japanese cabinet members visiting the Yasukuni Shrine:

China has made solemn representations to Japan and protests strongly. We urge Japan to cease all provocative acts that go contrary to the trend of the times.
Zhōngfāng yǐ xiàng Rìfāng tíchū yánzhèng jiāoshè hé kàngyì. Wǒmen dūncù Rìfāng tíngzhǐ yíqiè yǔ shídài cháoliú bèi dào ér chí de tiǎoxìn xíngwéi.
中方已向日方提出严正交涉和抗议。我们敦促日方停止一切与时代潮流背道而驰的挑衅行为。

Also, an offense is plainly unforgivable when it “injures the Chinese people’s feelings”, which seems to happen rather a lot. But, hey, we Chinese are a sensitive lot, and if anyone knows how all of us feel, it’s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

This action seriously interfered with China’s domestic affairs, injured the feelings of the Chinese people, and damaged Sino-US relations.
Cǐ jǔ yánzhòng gānshè Zhōngguó nèizhèng, shānghài Zhōngguó rénmín gǎnqíng, sǔnhài Zhōng-Měi guānxì.
此举严重干涉中国内政,伤害中国人民感情,损害中美关系。

Now that you’ve picked up the diplomatic lingo, why not learn how to talk like CCTV?

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Ginger Huang is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.