CHINESE DIPLOMACY & THE NEED FOR CULTURAL FINESSE

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By Tom Tom

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The more I observe Chinese diplomacy and business enterprises in the Pacific Islands, the more I feel that it’s not so much what they do, but rather how they do it that often attracts negative responses from Pacific Islanders. I sense that our Chinese friends do not understand – and don’t want to – the cultural nuances of the places that they work in and interact with. They therefore do not have the cultural finesse to interact effectively. This is not to say that the Chinese lack culture – not at all. They have thousands of years of rich cultures. Rather, it is more a lack of appreciation that things are done differently in different places and there is a need to learn the cultural nuances of those places. There is also a certain degree of “salvationist mentally” in Chinese diplomacy and business – the idea that because of its rapid economic growth in the past thirty years, China is therefore superior and has the responsibility to save the world from itself. It’s something similar to the notion of the “Whiteman’s burden” that justified – in the minds of the colonizers – Europe’s colonization of the world. It seems that the Chinese have gotten themselves caught up in that mentality – “China’s burden”. There is a mindset that what worked in China and how it was done there is, not only good for everyone, but ought to be done in the same way elsewhere. It is the same mentality that informed Europe’s colonial plunder worldwide and later the neo-liberal agendas preached by Western governments and financial institutions. In the Pacific Islands, the Chinese attitude sometimes comes across as over aggressive or over selling – too much self-promotion. That could have unintended consequences. I have not seen any effort by Chinese diplomats and business leaders to learn and immerse themselves in Pacific Islands cultures: knowing about protocols, land tenure systems, learning languages, etc. I know that seven Pacific Island languages have been learned by Chinese, especially at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, with the intention of teaching them in China. But here, languages are treated largely as medium of communicating Chinese agendas, rather than as window into truly understanding and appreciating Pacific Island cultures. Perhaps, one could say the same for the Australians, British and Americans, although they have been around longer and have some understanding, maybe more by default than proactive efforts. The Chinese could learn to do things differently. I don’t think they would be inclined to do that if they continue to have the “salvationist mentality” which comes with superiority complexes. So, the “win win” mantra has become more like, “we win, we save you”. The consequence is that while China (state & companies) often have support from Pacific Islands governments and elites, they struggle to have rapport with ordinary people. Quality diplomacy and business need cultural finesse.

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