Contentious Friendship18 min read

Geremie R. Barmé on Kevin Rudd and a decade of zhengyou

It’s ten years since I suggested that Kevin Rudd use the expression zhengyou in a speech he gave at Peking University in April 2008. Zhengyou means a friend or an adviser who dares give voice to unpleasant truths, one who offers uncomfortable opinions and counsels caution. It’s an ancient term in Chinese; in the glib journalese of today it might be rendered as “speaking truth to power.”

Rudd was Australia’s newly elected prime minister and the speech at Peking University was on the itinerary of his first overseas trip in the office, one that included courtesy calls on political leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, as well as those in Beijing. The China leg of the trip was particularly fraught because of controversies surrounding the international leg of the Olympic Torch Relay and the recent uprising in “Tibetan China,” what the Beijing media dubbed the “3.14 Riots.” These were mostly peaceful protests against Chinese rule that had broken out in March not just in the official autonomous region of Tibet, but in areas with sizable numbers of Tibetans. The official media blackout imposed on foreign journalists coupled with the draconian repression of protesters had caused consternation around the world, in particular among Western political leaders who were anxious that China’s vaunted “coming out” party at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that August go off without a hitch. Hopeful international politicians, academics, media commentators and China watchers speculated that China’s further integration into the international community as symbolized by the Olympics might be matched by a greater openness and relaxation within the People’s Republic itself.

Kevin and I had first met in July 1976 following a talk I gave to undergraduate students at my alma mater, The Australian National University. After two years as an exchange student in the People’s Republic I was back visiting family and I’d agreed to address Chinese language students at the university. After my presentation an earnest young man introduced himself as Kevin Rudd. Back in Canberra again 1980 to participate in an intensive three-years-in-one Japanese course and tutoring in Chinese, Kevin and I became friendly. He was working on an Honours thesis about the recently arrested Democracy Wall dissident Wei Jingsheng under the supervision of Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys), my own Chinese teacher. I acted as a sounding board for some of his ideas; I also helped with the play that the university China Club, headed by Kevin, was staging that year.

We kept in touch over the following decades. I pursued academic work while Kevin enjoyed a career first in the diplomatic service and then as a prominent bureaucrat in state government before he entered national politics. After a decade of conservative rule, Kevin Rudd led the opposition Labor Party to victory in the national election of late 2007. For me and my circle of friends, it was a cause for exuberant celebration. It wasn’t so much the personal connection (although that was mind-boggling): here was a Chinese-speaking, Asia-savvy politician with a raft of progressive social policies supported by a landslide victory. After a decade of conservative politics in which national horizons had narrowed, refugees had been exploited for political ends, race relations soured, and during which popular opposition to the illegal war in Iraq ignored, the neo-liberal transformation of the country was complete. Rudd’s ascendance promised a new era in the nation’s life.

On February 14, 2008, Kevin led a historic parliamentary apology for the effect that past government policies had on Australia’s Indigenous people. In the fraught atmosphere of the country’s race politics it was a moment of tremendous symbolism. Not long after that, I saw him at a business forum in Sydney where he gave an after-dinner speech on the topic of East Asia and Australia’s engagement with the region. As we chatted, he proudly told me that he really had written the Apology himself. He also said that he’d soon be traveling overseas. Among other things he would be addressing an audience at Peking University. Would I be willing to offer some “sino-babble” that he might be able to use in the speech? (Kevin wasn’t being particularly flip; it was a jocular short-hand.)

This wasn’t my first encounter with an Australian prime minister. In 1983, I had been one of the interpreters at a Commonwealth government closed-door cabinet roundtable with Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the Chinese Communists, hosted by the Labor leader Bob Hawke. Then, in late 1986, I had been subjected to a personal dressing down by the Labor great and former prime minster, Gough Whitlam. He thought Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, a book that John Minford and I had recently published in Hong Kong was “unfriendly” to China (upon assuming office in late 1972, Whitlam’s government had established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic). And, then, in late 1988, I had filled in for a friend as interpreter at a state dinner held in honor of a visit by China’s new premier, Li Peng. The event was also hosted by Bob Hawke and I was placed next to him to interpret. During a lull in the conversation (Li was a dullard and when talking with the affable and garrulous Hawke he was, for the most part, monosyllabic) Hawke asked me sotto voce for a personal view on the power struggle between Li and Bob’s “good mate” (his words) Zhao Ziyang that was known to be unfolding in Beijing. I duly remarked that, based on my recent travels and conversations with people in China, and by reading the official press, I thought that Hawke was seated next to one of the inevitable victors in this momentous tussle. When I shared Hawkes’s unpublishable (and, to his own analysts, unpalatable) response with outsiders I soon learned that I’d leaked what was the equivalent of a state secret. For the following two decades I had no further truck with the nation’s leaders.

That night in early 2008, Kevin let me know that, among other things, he felt that in his speech he also had to address publicly the question of the widely reported and egregious human rights abuses in Tibet. Relations between China and the West were fraught and as the first Western leader to visit Beijing since the uprising, Kevin would be under intense scrutiny. Given the prestigious venue and the audience that he would be addressing, over the next weeks as I exchanged thoughts with the PM’s advisers. In the process I offered a suggestion that the Prime Minister could preface the more pointed remarks he wanted to make with some discussion of Chinese history as well as mentioning some of the prominent intellectuals and writers who were associated with Peking University. Those celebrated for their thoughtful honesty included Cai Yuanpei, Hu Shi and Lu Xun. Such a prologue, I offered, could be used by the prime minister to set the scene to broach contemporary issues. I added that he might consider using a somewhat old-fashioned (and, I presumed, for most of his audience, obscure) term, zhengyou, as a culturally canny way to say that a “critical friend” – that is someone although well disposed to China who would not shy away from uncomfortable topics or conversations. I suggested that describing this kind of relationship as one of a “zhengyou: that is, as independent-minded interlocutor who was sufficiently well thought of so that when they offered the unvarnished truth they would not cause offense. I’d come across the expression some three decades earlier when I worked for a Chinese bookstore and publisher in Hong Kong. It was during the publishing mania of late 1970s China when works long banned or ignored were being reprinted. One work, Political Essentials from the Zhenguan Reign, a Tang-dynasty guide to ideal government compiled in 708-710CE, features the fearless honesty of Wei Zheng in offering advice to Li Shimin, the founding emperor of the dynasty. Wei is still celebrated as a zhengyou to those in power.

Despite the care taken, Kevin Rudd’s April 8, 2008, Peking University speech was controversial. The Chinese media was both enthralled by his remarks, yet wary. Particularly satisfying for me were the first TV reports of the event: it was common practice for broadcasters to provide Chinese subtitles for foreigners, even when they were speaking Chinese. The zhengyou section section of Kevin’s speech featured in the news, but in the initial report and the first few repeat broadcasts the state media wrote zhèngyǒu (诤友) incorrectly as zhēngyǒu (争友), a nonexistent expression that could be taken to mean something akin to “pugnacious friend.” The error was soon corrected but only after CCTV and other broadcasters were inundated with complaints from viewers. I couldn’t but help feel smug.

As for the Australian media, in particular the lynch-mob of the Murdoch press, it was primed to pounce on prime ministerial pronouncements, in particular those of a PM who was poncing it up in Beijing as well as grandstanding in Chinese. It was gleefully reported that Kevin Rudd’s speech had “offended China;” his ideas about striving to be a principled friend of the People’s Republic who dared to disagree on questions of principle was dismissed as wrong-headed. Even China veterans who knew full well that in their dealings with Official China they were trapped in the glum dichotomy of friend-enemy relations, chose to lambast Rudd.

A journalist working for one Australian media organization, however, invited me to offer an analysis of the concept of zhengyou and in an opinion piece I observed that given recent tensions over Tibet and the Olympic torch relay, Rudd as a practiced diplomat could have taken the easy way at Peking University and spoken in platitudes about the strength of the bilateral relationship while covering any number of mutually acceptable and anodyne topics. Instead, with finesse and skill, he chose to address the students on the broad basis for a truly sustainable relationship between a liberal democracy like Australia and the economically booming yet politically autocratic state that is China. By so doing, he attempted to rewrite the rules of engagement with the People’s Republic in a way that could only benefit Australia and its relationship with an immensely, though profoundly challenging, country. It might even do China some good as well.

As I wrote in my analysis, first Rudd acknowledged where he was: at a university that, more than any other educational institution in China, had helped shaped that country’s modern history, one recognized for its contributions to intellectual debate, political activism and cultural experimentation. He mentioned some of the intellectual heroes whose careers were entwined with the university: some were involved in reshaping Chinese into a modern language capable of carrying urgently needed political, cultural and historical debate. One was a leading democratic thinker.

He also made three references to Lu Xun (1881-1936), China’s literary hero, unyielding critic of authoritarianism and principled dissenter, noting that Lu Xun personally designed Peking University’s crest. It would not have been lost on his audience that the Australian Prime Minister’s choice of intellectual exemplars acknowledged China’s dominant communist ideology while pointing to the traditions of free speech and debate that had made Peking University famous.

Rudd’s strategy was thus first to honor the place where he was speaking and its connection to significant, complex historical and cultural figures. He went on to talk more personally about his own educational and political trajectory, and about Australia’s national interest. Appealing to his youthful audience to consider what positive role they could play in China’s rise as a world power, he evoked the Communist Party’s au courant concept of harmony (hexie), before making a canny digression. This was to note that 2008 was the 110th anniversary of the Hundred Days Reform movement of 1898, during which the enlightened emperor Guangxu struggled to launch political reforms and a modernization program similar to that of the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Rudd didn’t need to tell his audience that the Hundred Days was aborted or that some of it leaders were beheaded; his audience knew that. Instead he noted that one of the leading lights of the reforms, the thinker Kang Youwei, who survived by fleeing into exile, went on to write about “the Great Harmony” (datong), “a utopian world free of political boundaries.” Thus, in way that was clear to a Chinese intellectual audience, he linked the officially approved concept of harmony to the broader course of political reform, change and openness.

Rudd then spoke about China joining the rest of humanity as “a responsible global stakeholder” — a lead-in to addressing the pressing issue of Tibet. By framing his comments in such a manner, he attempted to establish his right — and by extension the right of others — to disagree both with official Chinese and mainstream opinion on matters of international concern. He offered that there was a venerable Chinese expression for such a position: “A true friend,” Rudd went on, “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.”

The subsequent Chinese media discussion of Rudd’s use of zhengyou – the true friend who dares to disagree – was considerable. The zhengyou offered a radical departure for it was unlike the milksop pengyou, or friend, of official Communist discourse. Mao Zedong observed in one his most famous, and oft-quoted writings that: “The first and foremost question of the revolution is: who is our friend and who is our foe.” It’s a question that has underpinned official Chinese attitudes to outsiders since 1949. “Friendship” (youyi) was and remains the unmovable cornerstone of Chinese diplomacy and sino-foreign exchange.

To be a friend of China, the Chinese people, the party-state or, in the reform period, even a mainland business partner, the foreigner is also expected to stomach unpalatable situations, as well as to keep silent in the face of egregious behavior. A “Friend of China”, or an “Old Friend” 中國的老朋友 might enjoy the privilege of offering the occasional word of caution in private; in the public arena, however, he or she is expected to have the strategic nous, good sense and courtesy to be “objective” (keguan), that is to toe the line, whatever the line happens to be. Long ago the concept of “friendship” degenerated into being little more than an effective tool employed by the party-state for emotional blackmail and enforced complicity. The Chinese have their own formulation to accommodate disagreement. It is summed up in the four-word expression qiutong cunyi: to seek common ground while recognizing existing differences. This provides a pragmatic rationale for dealing with ideological and strategic competitors, but in reality it is little more that – a verbal sleight-of-hand allowing for mutually beneficial accommodation.

Rudd’s tactic was to sidestep the vice-like embrace of the model of friendship imposed by the Chinese authorities by substituting another. “A strong relationship, and a true friendship,” he told the students, “are built on the ability to engage in a direct, frank and ongoing dialogue about our fundamental interests and future vision.”

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 first thing one needs is the magnanimity of pluralism.” Of course, in the land of linguistic slippage it is easy to see that while for some zhengyou means speaking out of turn, for others it may simply become another way for allowing pesky foreigners to let off steam.

Of course, there were dangers, not mentioned in the Chinese media, in using such a term. Perhaps the most famous zhengyou relationship of modern times was that between Mao and Liang Shuming, a Confucian thinker and rural reformer. Mao declared that although their politics were different, Liang was a true zhengyou, and from the 1940s into the early 1950s Liang advised the Party leader on policy in the countryside. But, in 1953, Liang dared venture that the Party’s policies and the imposition of an ideology based on class struggle was having a calamitous effect. At a meeting he pointedly asked Mao whether he had the “magnanimity” (yaliang) to accept his contrarian views. The Chairman famously shot back, “I very much doubt I’ll be able to demonstrate the kind of magnanimity you want!” Shortly thereafter, Liang was silenced; he only resurfaced after Mao’s death in 1976.

Another famous zhengyou worked on the other side of the political divide. The May Fourth scholar and academic leader Hu Shi declared that under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek he could be “a zhengchen [an outspoken minister] for the nation and a zhengyou for the government”. He maintained a modestly critical stance towards Chiang’s government, although for the most part his well-crafted views allowed him to retain respect as he tried to exercise a modicum of influence. Despite his stewardship of the Free China Journal from 1949 until its forced closure by the Nationalist government in 1960, critics argue that Hu, for the most part, rather than acting as a friend who dared to disagree on matters of principle, was complicit in Chiang’s authoritarian rule. He ended up being more courtier than zhengyou.

Then there are examples from Chinese history in which the zhengyou has played a more positive role in good governance. As mentioned earlier, the most famous zhengyou in history was Wei Zheng, minister to and critic of Li Shimin, the Emperor Taizong of the 7th-century Tang dynasty. Wei told the ruler that: “If you listen to wise counsel all is brightness; if, however, you give in to bias darkness falls”.

When Wei died, some years later, the emperor bitterly mourned his loss and he offered this tribute: “One looks at a reflection in a bronze mirror to see if one’s dress is in order. One studies history to understand the changing fortunes of time. And one seeks wise counsel to avoid mistakes. We frequently avail ourselves of these three mirrors and thereby avoid error. Wei Zheng is gone; I have lost one of my mirrors.” The metaphor of the mirror is used by China’s leaders and the media to this day. I would suggest that in the fraught New Epoch of Xi Jinping as the Communist Party reasserts control over the nation’s life under one-man rule, that when the Chairman of Everything looks in the mirror he does not do so with eyes wide shut.

In many ways, 2008 was a year of great significance. At this juncture, ten years later, it is well worth reading (or re-reading) China in 2008, edited by Kate Merkel-Hess, Kenneth Pomeranz and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. The editors cover many aspects of that fateful year in the life of the People’s Republic, among other things they chronicle the increased policing of Chinese life (including the Internet), the formulation of harsher policies towards ethnic minorities and the seemingly unstoppable rise of nationalist vehemence. During that year the careful observer would also have noted evidence of Xi Jinping’s heavy hand since he was the security tsar of the Olympics. The hints of China’s unfolding “assertiveness” were also increasingly evident at that time. For his part, Kevin Rudd, the prime minister of a not-insignificant liberal democracy in the Asia-Pacific, by introducing the term zhengyou with all of its potential into dealings with the People’s Republic was also attempting to do something of significance. Today, only those who are in constant engagement with China can gauge whether the term zhengyou and the demeanor of canny interaction with the People’s Republic that it connotes still has a place in lived reality.

As the People’s Republic of China, a country that is tirelessly alert to perceived slights, plots, and hints of containment, continues to warn darkly of the threat of a new Cold War — and as it responds to the fears in the Antipodes, Europe and North America that its “united front” work among patriotic Chinese is also a front for a political and economic fifth column — the pursuit of principled yet amicable disagreement appears even more distant that when Kevin Rudd addressed that audience at Peking University. In an international environment in which borders, walls and paranoia inform public opinion as well as political action, principled friendship may be nothing more than the nostalgic luxury for an imagined past. As for Australia-China relations, both sides have abiding mutual interests and contradictory strategies. Now, as was the case ten years ago, to be a principled friend who dares to disagree, one first and foremost needs principles, and not merely transactional tactics.

For more on zhengyou, see ‘Australia and China in the World: Whose Literacy?’ Header image: a famous Tang bas relief depicting a general pulling an arrow from the chest of Li Shimin’s treasured war horse, Autumn Dew (Wikicommons).