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A State Insult with Chinese Characteristics

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A state banquet was scene to a triumph of sorts for a newly assertive, and more nakedly anti-American, strain in Chinese foreign policy.

How to evaluate the results of last week’s China-U.S. summit in Washington? Improbably, the key for the entire event may lie in what is usually the least memorable portion of these carefully choreographed occasions: the cultural program at the concluding state banquet.

During the dinner’s musical interlude and following a duet with American jazz musician Herbie Hancock, Chinese pianist Lang Lang treated the assembled dignitaries to a solo of what he described as “a Chinese song: ‘My Motherland.’” (You can watch this on YouTube.)

The Chinese delegation was clearly delighted: Chinese President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao, stone-faced for many of his other photo ops in Washington, beamed with pleasure upon hearing the melody and embraced Lang Lang at the song’s conclusion (see it on YouTube too). President Obama, for his part, amiably praised Lang Lang for his performance and described the event as "an extraordinary evening."

‘My Motherland’ is still famous in China; indeed, it is well-known to practically every Chinese adult to this very day.

But what, exactly, is this “gorgeous” and “beautiful” (Hu’s words) tune that so entranced China’s visiting leadership?

“My Motherland” is not a “Chinese song” in any ordinary meaning of the term. Instead, it is a Mao-era propaganda classic: the theme from "Triangle Hill" (Shangganling), a film in which heroic Chinese forces fight, kill, and eventually beat Americans in pitched battle during the Korean War.

“My Motherland” epitomizes the “Resist America, Aid [North] Korea” campaign that Beijing embraced during and after the Korean War. It celebrates Sino-American enmity. The gist of the tune can be seen in its lyrics (see the Wikipedia translation):

When friends are here, there is fine wine
But if the wolves come
What greets it is the hunting gun.

(Two guesses who “the wolves” are.)

“My Motherland” is still famous in China; indeed, it is well-known to practically every Chinese adult to this very day. Unfortunately, this political anthem and its significance were evidently unknown to the many members of the administration’s China team—the secretary and deputy secretary of State, the assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and the National Security Council’s top two Asia experts—who were on hand at the state dinner and heard this serenade. Clueless about the nature of the insult, they did not know to warn the president that he would embarrass himself and his country by not only sitting through the song, but by congratulating Lang Lang for it afterward.

Unfortunately, this political anthem and its significance were evidently completely unknown to the many members of the Obama administration’s China team.

Although Americans are often tone-deaf to cadences of symbolism in international relations, the Chinese are not. And for Chinese audiences, the symbolism of performing “My Motherland” to a host of uncomprehending barbarians in the White House itself hardly required explanation. This was a triumph of sorts for a newly assertive, and more nakedly anti-American, strain in Chinese foreign policy. The episode has reportedly already gone viral over the Chinese Internet, where the buzz on this crude and deliberate snub is overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive. Hu can thus return home confident his visit to America will widely be regarded as a success domestically— for reasons his American counterparts do not yet seem to comprehend.

The “My Motherland” incident, for its part, may only be a foretaste of what lies ahead in U.S.-China relations. Note, for example, this week’s New York Times front-page story “China Grooming Deft Politician as Next Leader,” announcing Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice president and politburo member, as heir presumptive to Hu Jintao. Xi is lauded as “a brilliant politician” who “came to hate ideological struggles” and is known for “his conciliatory leadership style.” This is the same urbane pragmatist who delivered a speech in Beijing last October commemorating China’s role in the Korean War, a war Xi described as “imposed by the imperialist aggressors,” while Chinese and North Korean troops were waging “a war of justice to defend peace.” Xi even trotted out the long-discredited Communist lie that Americans used germ warfare in the Korean conflict.

This Orwellian rendition of the origins and conduct of the Korean War augurs ill for U.S.-China relations on many counts (not the least of these being the prospect of cooperation on denuclearization in North Korea—in Xi’s telling, the supposed victim of a U.S. surprise attack in 1950). Xi's diatribe reveals a lingering and deep-seated animosity toward the United States, and suggests that China’s rising generation of rulers will be less shy about advertising (and perhaps acting upon) such sentiments than their predecessors.

If American policy makers are to avoid unpleasant surprises in their dealings with China in the years ahead, they must pay far more attention to official Chinese pronouncements, commentary, and doctrine. All too often, American security specialists—and even China watchers—are inclined to disregard official Chinese speechifying as so much boring palaver. The problem is that in a controlled society, official words matter. Sometimes, even songs do.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Michael Mazza notes Chinese expansionism in “China and the Lost Pearls,” while Eberstadt discusses “A Poverty of Statistics.” Eberstadt also considers “Global Poverty and Its Sad Persistence,” says it is “Time for Demographic ‘Stress Tests,’” and outlines “Asia-Pacific Demographics in 2010-2040.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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