“China stands ready to work with the international community to advance the implementation of the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, and advocate for the common values of humanity,” Xi said. “China will advance the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”
That’s the Chinese news readout of Xi’s meeting with several dozen foreign envoys in a Great Hall ceremony for formal presentation of credentials, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Xi’s clarion call for “win-win” cooperation and his quasi-Utopian, “shared future for humanity,” deserves more thought, as does the prolix set of personal initiatives (Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative).
But to focus on the words, best pondered, picked apart and dissected in the usual authorized formats as presented in the People’s Daily, Xinhua, or China Daily is to miss the power of visual pomp as a tool of persuasion as evidenced in the televised coverage.
CCTV News visually recounted the long journey by which Beijing’s newest crop of ambassadors made their way from the diplomatic district to the inner chambers of the Great Hall on Tiananmen Square.
Imagine you’re U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns or Philippine Ambassador Jimi Florcruz or Sudan Ambassador Mirghani Mohamed Salih on the day of the big audience. You get up early, dress your best and travel from your home in your embassy’s chancellery or diplomatic compound to a Foreign Ministry arranged rendezvous point where you board the bus for a brush with greatness. The comfortable bus you ride in collectively is given the ceremonial honor of an armed motorcade that whisks you to the west face of Tiananmen Square. From there you mount the wide steps of the Great Hall of the People and get ushered into a cavernous waiting room with other diplomats where you will wait with pent-up expectations for your turn to be summoned for an audience in an order determined by protocol.
The pressure builds as you pad across the thick, pristine carpet of the audience hall, where the most powerful man in China awaits you. He stands motionless in the middle of an ornate circle patterned into the carpet, located exactly in the center of the room. Never mind that you’ve walked a long way already, he will not make as much as a single step or move an inch in your direction; it is for you to move to him.
Some of the ambassadors are visibly nervous, the build-up has been tremendous and there’s little or no hint of a smile on the powerful man receiving you. Xi alone has nothing to prove. His arms dangle by his side without gesticulation, handshake or wave. He will reach out to receive your credentials, but the entire weight of the greeting falls upon you, as you inch up to him gingerly so as to be close, but not too close. The paramount one hardly blinks, let alone break into a smile or offer a warm welcome.
There’s no indication that China requires foreigners to bow before its leaders, but bow they do. It’s what you do in polite society in many countries, it’s what you do when you’re nervous, it’s what you do when you want to make a respectful impression.
Nobody needs to be instructed in the non-verbal behavior of being awed, it’s practically reflexive, and the camera catches it. One foreign dignitary after another, from countries big and small, present themselves in a humble and courtly manner.
Hierarchy is built into the protocol of presenting credentials, but it also reflects Xi’s aloof leadership style. There were several diplomats who did not bow, despite the natural inclination to do so in such a top-down set up. One notable stiff-backed presenter of credentials was U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, another was New Zealand’s indigenous cloak-draped Ambassador to China Ambassador Grahame Morton. Xi is virtually expressionless but for a fixed ambiguous smile.
Some seventy diplomats in all presented credentials, and CCTV’s camera caught the moment when many of them bowed. To give Xi credit where it’s due, it’s not easy or natural to stand placidly in place for one photo-op after another. Standing as still as a statue and maintaining a neutral expression is an understandable energy-saving response and helps produce a uniform output of commemorative photos.
The highlight for me, for totally subjective reasons, was seeing my Philippine Ambassador Jimi Florcruz present his credentials to Xi. I think Xi actually smiled, and though visibly nervous, Florcruz did not go out of his way to genuflect or make a statement by standing stiff. Compared to most of the other moments frozen on camera, it’s almost a natural interaction. The two men are natural cohorts in the sense that they are about the same age, they were both idealistic youth, and they share similar life experiences. Both attended university in Beijing in the late 1970s. Florcruz was at Beijing University (his cohort there included Li Keqiang and Bo Xilai) around the time Xi was at neighboring Tsinghua University.
I first met “Jimi” in 1986 when he was working at Time magazine when I was writing as a freelance journalist. Jimi later worked for CNN, (onscreen it’s Jaime Florcruz) and in time he became known, deservedly, as the dean of foreign journalists in China.
He’s cheerful, calm, easy-going and naturally diplomatic, so it’s a bit hard to picture him amidst all the pomp and political circumstance in which he finds himself today.
President Bongbong Marcos, whose dictatorial father was the reason Florcruz fled his homeland and sought political asylum in China in the first place, made an unexpected but savvy choice for his ambassador to Beijing. As a long-term resident of China (dating back to the early 1970s) Florcruz has a proven record of staying in good graces despite credible work as a journalist who produced hard-hitting reports on Tiananmen among other topics over the years. Sino-Philippine relations are not without serious flash points, so Ambassador Florcruz certainly has his work cut out for him, but he has the talent and disposition to make a good go of it.
Words can be ambiguous, but images even more so. Take the stiff posture of Ambassador Burns, or Xi Jinping’s laconic gaze. Does it tell us something about the state of U.S.-China relations? Can intent be read into the contrasting non-verbal behavior, or is it just a matter of different personality style? The grandiose stage-like setting of the Great Hall begs for a dramatic interpretation, even if nothing is happening. One would hardly notice the same.