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Diplomatic Disasters: The Dos and Don’ts

Some of the worst diplomatic blunders that hurt the feelings of the Chinese people


Diplomatic Disasters: The Dos and Don’ts

Some of the worst diplomatic blunders that hurt the feelings of the Chinese people


As a rising global superpower, China has opened its arms to the world of international diplomacy, seeking to share, as President Xi Jinping recently announced, “the global significance of the Chinese dream”.

But unfortunately for some visitors, the dream turned nightmarish fast, as choice words, tweets, and presents garnered China’s national attention—but not in a good way.

Diplomatic “Don’t” No. 1: Argentina’s President makes enemies with a nation in under 140 characters

During a visit to China in February to seek foreign investment for her recession-hit economy, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sent out a tweet after hundreds of Chinese businessmen showed up to see her at an event in Beijing. She quipped, “Más de 1.000 asistentes al evento… ¿Serán todos de “La Cámpola” y vinieron sólo por el aloz y el petlóleo?

Translation: “More than 1,000 participants at the event … Are they all from the Campola and in it only for the lice and petloleum?”

The post, in which Fernandez switched out the R’s with L’s in the tweet to turn “rice and oil” into “lice and petloleum,” as if speaking with a cartoonish Chinese accent, was immediately retweeted more than 4,000 times and reached her 3.53 million twitter followers.

It then quickly gained the attention of China’s own social media platform, weibo.

One weibo user ranted, “A head of a state desperately in need of economic rescue from China, while on Chinese soil, still exudes a racial superiority out of nowhere.”

Another wrote: “You come to China to get money, but you aren’t even respectful. Don’t come to our country. You’re not welcome.”

China’s state media, however, stayed out of the fray, reporting only on official diplomatic business and circulating a picture of President Xi Jingping and Cristina Fernandez  shaking hands. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that China had no comment on Fernandez’s tweets.

And Fernandez did end up apologizing, kind of. She later tweeted: “Sorry. You know what? It’s just that things are so excessively ridiculous and absurd. They can only be digested with humor. …”

Regardless of whether Fernandez made a bad joke or a diplomatic faux pas, analysts at Bloomberg News believe her 140 character no-no will have little effect on China-Argentina trade relations.


Diplomatic Don’t No. 2: an accidental death wish comes gift wrapped

When British Transport Minister Susan Kramer gave Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je a small watch as a present, she had no idea that she was essentially telling him his death was near.

In Chinese, the phrase for giving a clock or watch, 送钟 (sòng zhōng), sounds the same as 送终 (sòng zhōng), a word meaning to attend upon a dying member of one’s family. Because the words sound so similar, giving watches or clocks as presents have become culturally taboo, since the present would suggest the gifter believes the giftee won’t be long for this world.

“We learn something new each day,” Kramer later said in a statement. “I had no idea a gift like this could be seen as anything other than positive: In the UK a watch is precious—because nothing is more precious than time.”

Unfortunately for Ko Wen-je, besides being presented with his very own death omen, the mayor recently announced he will undertake some “diplomatic etiquette” training after his own response to the present raised some eyebrows.

After receiving the watch, the Mayor reportedly said, “I can just regift it to someone or take it to a scrap metal dealer and sell it for cash.”


Diplomatic Don’t No. 3: Gentleman’s gesture gets too flirtatious for comfort

On a cool Monday night during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, chatted with the man seated to her right, Vladimir Putin.

The conversation presumably touched upon how chilly it was, which is why Putin suddenly stood up, grabbed his tan coat, and draped it over the Chinese first lady’s shoulders.

The move, chivalrous to some, sent waves throughout Chinese social media, with the unsavory rumor quickly spreading that Putin was flirting with Peng Liyuan.

“China is traditionally conservative on public interaction between unrelated men and women, and the public show of consideration by Putin may provide fodder for jokes,” said Beijing-based historian and independent commentator Zhang Lifan in an interview with the Guardian.

Peng Liyuan, however, navigated the situation with diplomatic skill—after politely wearing Putin’s coat for about five seconds, she handed the offending article to an attendant and promptly switched into a different jacket.

A reporter from the state-run media source CCTV observed the whole exchange from the sidelines and simply noted, “I just saw President Putin attentively placing a coat onto Peng Liyuan’s body.”

The gaffe has been fondly remembered by some as “coatgate”.


Diplomatic Don’t No. 4: Being a diplomat is so easy, even a Terracotta Warrior can do it

While on an official visit to China in 1986, the Duke of Edinburgh made one of the most infamous diplomatic gaffes known to mankind.

Turning to a group of British exchange students during his visit to Xian, the Duke remarked, “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

On the same trip, the Duke referred to Beijing as “ghastly” and waxed equally romantic on the Chinese during a meeting with the World Wildlife Fund, saying, “if it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”

While China remained relatively mum over the racist comments, the UK expressed a distinct disdain for his words—one particularly apt headline from the Daily Mail asked, “Does Britain Need a Terracotta Duke?” adding, “they’re tall, dignified, ceremonial, and above everything else, they are silent.”

This wasn’t the first time that the Duke came under fire for his insensitive statements. The Independent recently published, “Ninety gaffes in ninety years,” in honor of the Duke’s ninetieth birthday.

When asked by a reporter from the Telegraph on his thoughts about the 1986 trip, the 89-year-old Duke retorted, “I’d forgotten all about it. But for one particular reporter who overhead it, it wouldn’t have come out. What’s more, the Chinese weren’t worried about it, so why should anyone else?”

And finally, a Diplomatic Do!

 All eyes were on Prince William this past month as he traveled through Asia on his “most significant overseas tour” to date, according to the BBC—a trip made all the more significant considering the last time a British royal made an official trip to China was in 1986 (see above).

But despite a not so pleasant diplomatic history, Prince William managed to complete the trip relatively under the radar, playing soccer in Shanghai, visiting hutongs in Beijing, and all around charming the population with his mastery over the greeting, “ni hao”.

A minor moment of tension occurred when the animal lover visited an elephant sanctuary at the end of his trip and saw the nearby entertainment park, where elephants had been trained to play football. Though the Prince pointedly refused to answer a reporter’s question on how he felt about China’s animal entertainment industry, he nonetheless remained  silent on the issue.

“A lot of progress has been achieved on this tour and the Duke wants to focus on this,” a source said to Vanity Fair on the Prince’s silence.

Blunder-prone informal ambassadors may be better off following Prince William’s lead in the world of international relations—silence, it seems, may actually be diplomatically golden.

Chinese diplomatic language on the other hand, has an extraordinarily programed style. Read our fun article about it here.