Article translated from Southern Weekly report.
In China’s diplomatic vocabulary, there is a very special title: “old friend of the Chinese people”.
Southern Weekly reporter researched the People’s Daily database from 1949 to 2010, in hope to find answers to the following questions: Who were officially identified as an old friend of the Chinese people? Where did the friendship come from? And how did the Chinese government and the Chinese people make of the friendship?
People can get a glimpse of the track of China’s diplomacy from the changes of how the term “an old friend of the Chinese people” has been used.
Over the past sixty years, a total of 601 people have ever been referred to as “an old friend of the Chinese people”. They came from 123 countries across five continents.
In earlier years, on the roads of fighting imperialism, colonialism and aggression, the Chinese government needed to identify “old friend” for help. But as China’s diplomacy continues to grow more pragmatic, the meaning and significance of these ‘old friends’ changed, too.
There is a group of foreigners, whom most of Chinese people have never met. Yet when their names are mentioned, almost every Chinese will be automatically conditioned to label them as “the old friend of the Chinese people”. These “old friends” include Edgar Snow, Prince Sihaouk, Kissinger, Joseph Needham, Juan Antonio Samaranch, etc.
“Building emotional bonds is where the Chinese like to start when it comes to international relations. Interest is not to be mentioned overtly, instead, we have ‘old friends’.” Peking University international relations professor Zhang Qingmin told the Southern Weekly reporter.
“Old friends” all over the world
601 – the total number of people who have been identified as “an old friend of the Chinese people” over the past 60 years in People’s Daily. They are indeed “old friends from all over the world”, from 123 countries across five continents.
The very first to be called an “old friend” was Canadian James G. Endicott in 1956. He began set up schools in China since 1930 and has always supported the Chinese revolution.
However, the majority of the 601 “old friends” received their title after 1977. In 1979, the occurrence of the term reached its first peak. “In times to fully restore diplomatic relations, and times when faced with difficulties in international relations, we need the help of old friends.” Zhang Qingmin commented.
In terms of country of origin, Japan has the most number of “old friends of the Chinese people”, a total of 111, twice as many as the number of the U.S. Further down the list are Britain, France and Germany.
Interestingly, when the reporter searched for country names that were coupled with keyword “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” in the same database, Japan and the U.S also topped the list.
Zhang Qingmin commented, “Countries with the most number of “old friends” are also counties with the greatest importance to Chinese foreign relations. Among world’s big powers, Russia is the only country that doesn’t have many “old friends”. This is because we and the Soviet Union used to be comrades, brothers, much closer than friends. And when the relationship deteriorated, friend was not an appropriate title, either, at the time.”
Of course, small countries can be important friends, too. For example, Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the two African “iron friends” – former President Nyerere of Tanzania and former President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
Most of Japanese “old friends” are those who have had positive impact on the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. They were also called the pioneer of Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization. Entrepreneur Jia Ping Okazaki was among the most respected. He was mentioned as “an old friend” a total of 22 times. Japanese Prime Ministers also have a great chance to become “an old friend of Chinese people”. From 1972 to 1996, 10 out of 14 people held the position received the title.
In fact, in the list of 601 old friends, foreign dignitaries account for a large proportion. In addition to Kissinger, Nixon and those who contributed a lot in the process of China’s normalization of diplomatic relations, national leaders who have visited China several times are also often dubbed as an old friend.
Economic and cultural fields are also sources of “old friends”, such as those in “ping pong diplomacy” and “ballet diplomacy”.
From revolutionary comrades to business partners
In the beginning, “old friends” are always soldiers or doctors who have offered a helping hand in China’s revolution, or foreign journalists who introduced the mysterious “middle kingdom” and the revolution led by Mao Zedong to the world.
After the Revolution, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialism and anti-aggression became the basis for identification of “old friends”, many from the socialist camp and Third World countries were given the title during this period.
In the 1970s, during the wave of restoration of diplomatic relations, almost all who have made an effort were given the title, such as former President of Mexico Aiqie Elie for her strong support for China’s legitimate seat in the UN.
Since 1987, a new group – persons in charge of international organizations, also started to be “old friends”. The first to make friendship with the Chinese people was former Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities Rafael Salas, who was reported to “ have always firmly supported China’s population policy” when China was accused of forced abortion and forced sterilization.
Subsequently, former Executive Director of UNICEF, James Grant, former Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization Savignac, former UN Secretary General, Ghali, also joined the band.
As the opening-up reform began, economic and trade “old friends” started to appear, especially in countries where there was a strong voice against doing business with China.
Where are these “old friends” now?
Many old friends have died. Since 1985, People’s Daily has run several obituaries for “old friends”. When some important friends died, state officials would usually sent a message of condolence. At each anniversary, there are also articles memorizing these “old friends”.
Since 2003, the occurrence of “an old friend of the Chinese people” in People’s Daily started to plummet, from about 50 times per year down to about 20 times.
Into 2011, “an old friend of the Chinese people” appeared only twice, once for King Juan Carlos I of Spain, and once for the Asian Winter Games Organizing Committee Chairman