Column: “Zhengyou”

I wrote the first third of this column in Shanghai, in my room (1010, as it so happens) at the famous Park Hotel in the center of the city. I thought that allowed me to use the privilege of the dateline.

Published on April 15, 2008

SHANGHAI—Of the many facts thrown our way about China’s impressive growth since Deng Xiaoping “opened” China in 1978, I found the following bit to have the most bite. When the 22-story Park Hotel in this city was built in 1934, it was the tallest building in the Far East. It remained the tallest building in Shanghai until 1988. But in the past 20 years, Wang Jianjun told us over dinner one night, some 4,000 buildings taller than Park Hotel have been built in Shanghai.

I have not had the chance to verify this startling statistic for myself, but it is not difficult to believe. This teeming megalopolis is a sprawling forest of skyscrapers.

Of course, Madame Wang is an official of the government of Shanghai Municipality, and it is her responsibility to present one of the world’s largest cities in the best possible light. (She was editor in chief of the 2007 Shanghai fact book.) She spent a considerable amount of time talking about Expo 2010, which Shanghai will host. But she also parried political questions with great skill and explained the official line with genuine conviction.

For instance, to the essential question about the sources of Shanghai’s extraordinary progress, she pointed to three factors: the reforms that opened up the Chinese economy, the continuity of a central government that provides stability, and the hard work of the people of Shanghai themselves. It was almost convincing.
To the inevitable follow-up question (Surely the history of Shanghai, already a famous port in the 19th century, must have had something to do with its present progress?), she gracefully accepted the premise as a given, but eventually returned, forcefully, to the talking points.

* * *

The second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, “From Third World to First,” devotes five chapters to China and paints a vivid albeit impressionist portrait of Deng. “He was the most impressive leader I had met. He was a five-footer, but a giant among men,” Lee wrote.

As far as I can tell, the compliment is based, not so much on the personal encounters between the two leaders, although Lee makes a point of praising Deng for his intellectual honesty (“At 74, when he was faced with an unpleasant truth, he was prepared to change his mind”), but on the reforms he started in China and saw through. In his scheme of things, Shanghai occupied a special place.

At one point, after congratulating Lee on Singapore’s dramatic transformation, Deng said, “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly. But I have the whole of China!”

Deng died in 1997, a few months before the Hong Kong hand-over. He failed to see Shanghai accelerate its pace of growth in the early years of the 21st century. Certainly, in terms of infrastructure, Shanghai has changed just as quickly as Singapore.

And it continues to change. The 5.8-square-kilometer area reserved for the Expo is largely bare, for now, except for some existing structures, such as a power plant, that will be converted to other uses. But Expo staff assured us that construction of all the new buildings will be complete by November 2009—half a year before the Expo begins.

* * *

In the midst of the international controversy over the Olympic torch relay, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd visited Beijing. On April 9, he gave a groundbreaking talk at Peking University, a personal, pensive speech which managed to remind China about the “problems of broader human rights” without igniting yet another diplomatic firestorm. Indeed, and as the first observers immediately took note, the Chinese-speaking ex-diplomat may have advanced the cause of dialogue and engagement with China with a simple argument. He redefined the meaning of friendship.

(The speech is available in English translation on his website, at, in the Media Hub section.)

Mao Zedong, the gifted rebel who founded modern China and became, in effect, the first communist emperor, famously began his “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” with a trenchant question: “Who are our enemies, and who are our friends?”

The same kind of thinking has informed Chinese diplomacy since 1949, writes Geremie Barme, a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University. Barme’s admiring account of Rudd’s breakthrough speech distinguishes between the old kind of see-nothing, say-nothing friendship (“youyi”) with the new one.

“A true friend is one who can be a ‘zhengyou,’ that is, a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship,” Rudd told the students in Beijing. “In other words, a true friendship which ‘offers unflinching advice and counsels restraint’ to engage in principled dialogue about matters of contention.”

Barme writes: “Rudd’s tactic was to deftly sidestep the vise-like embrace of that model of friendship by substituting another … The distinction was not lost on the Chinese. The official news agency Xinhua reported: ‘Eyes lit up when [Rudd] used this expression … it means friendship based on speaking the truth, speaking responsibly. It is evident that to be a zhengyou, the first thing one needs is the magnanimity of pluralism.’”

What would the Paramount Leader think?


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