Xiaohong worked on Western European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing from 1977 until 1989. At some point after this she entered the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, and in 1997 was awarded a Ph.D. This book is her doctoral thesis, and - on the whole - a very good one it is. Chinese Ambassadors is based on many interviews with former diplomats and a variety of Chinese primary sources (including memoirs), and is clear, well organized, and - in its main thrust - tightly argued. As a result, it offers a rare insight into the origins and development of the diplomatic service of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
Xiaohong’s method is to present the biographies of a small number of ambassadors she takes to be representative of the four generations of Chinese ambassadors between 1949 and 1994 that she identifies. In between the biographical chapters she steps back and describes the sources of recruitment and typical attitudes of each generation. Those with military backgrounds and other veterans of the Long March only slowly ceased to dominate the ranks of China’s diplomats and for this and other well known reasons it is hardly surprising that, for some years after the revolution, there were many ‘baffled ambassadors’ perched on ‘cold benches’ abroad. The devastating impact of the cultural revolution, which began in 1966 and is the watershed between the second and third generations, is fully detailed. The rest of the book is an account of how the diplomatic service – overseen until his death in 1986 by Zhou Enlai – slowly clawed its way back, turning increasingly to university graduates for recruits and adopting a more ‘professional’ style. The fourth generation (1984-1990s) even began to develop a ‘collegial rapport’ with ‘fellow diplomats from other countries’.
It is not surprising to learn from Xiaohong’s book that in the last twenty years or so the PRC’s diplomatic missions have been doing essentially the same kind of work as those of other states. Public diplomacy
began to take on more significance, especially in trying to repair Beijing’s image after the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, when China’s ambassadors once more found themselves shivering on ‘cold benches’. (That this was too much for some to swallow is evidenced by the fact that this event was followed by an unprecedented number of defections from China’s missions abroad.) Commercial work also became extremely important, not least for embassies in the Arab world, where the PRC had developed major economic interests. (The desperate lengths to which Guan Zihuai, the ambassador to Kuwait, went to return to Kuwait City in 1991 after the expulsion of Saddam’s forces is fully described and extremely instructive in this regard.) The Chinese diplomatic service even began to appoint a few women ambassadors, and in the mid-1990s abandoned its long-established prohibition on locally engaged staff.
In view of the obvious patchiness of the source material available to her at the Chinese end, I think that – speaking as a non-Sinologist – Xiaohong has done remarkably well with this book. It is a pity, though, that where source material abroad was readily available she sometimes passed up the opportunity to consult it. Some parts of her work must as a result be treated with great caution, not least her account of Sino-British relations in late August 1967, which cites just one (Chinese) source. This is not only peppered with errors but provides a seriously flawed analysis. The burning of the British Office (not ’embassy’) of which Donald Hopson (not ‘Hobson’) was chargé d’affaires, and the sacking of the residence, did not provoke ‘the British public’ to take ‘revenge by staging a siege of the Chinese embassy [actually ‘Office’] in London’. (Because the British insisted on retaining consular missions in Taiwan, Beijing refused an exchange of missions headed by ‘ambassadors’, i.e. ’embassies’, though London continued to call its own mission in Beijing the ‘British Embassy’ until it was forced to leave the old building at the end of the 1950s.) It is certainly true that the FO fell in with Hopson’s plea that it should keep hold of the Chinese diplomats as hostages to be used in his negotiations for an amelioration in the appalling conditions of his own staff. Consequently, the staff of the Chinese mission in Portland Place were informed that they would not be allowed to leave the country without an exit visa, could not go further than five miles from Marble Arch without permission, and could not use diplomatic wireless. Shortly after this, the police guard on the mission was doubled in order to enforce these orders and as a precaution against protesters, though the only other persons initially present in any numbers were pressmen. Some ‘siege’. I concede, however, that, in the hysterical atmosphere provoked by the cultural revolution at its height, it could easily have felt like a ‘siege’ inside the Chinese mission.
Thereafter, a few hotheads and eccentrics began to gather and jeer at the Chinese diplomats, who periodically replied in kind by brandishing at them Mao’s ‘little red book’. However, on 29 August, to the evident astonishment of the police, who had only their batons and dustbin lids with which to defend themselves (Ah! Resourceful nation!) about 20 Chinese ‘diplomats’ sallied out of the mission (Aux armes, citoyens!
) and attacked their lines with baseball bats, cudgels, bottles, and at least one axe. What was subsequently dubbed the ‘Battle of Portland Place’ lasted for about five minutes. It left not much worse than some nasty cuts and bruises on both sides, and was immediately followed by an order banning any further protesters (whether packers from Muswell Hill, drivers from Poplar, or sociologists from Hampstead – presumably siding with the ‘besieged’), from assembling in the vicinity of Portland Place. However, Xiaohong then makes another mistake by saying that the Chinese diplomats in London and the British diplomats in Beijing became hostages of each other’s government ‘[a]fter the incident’. In fact, of course, it was precisely because the British were already
being held hostage in Beijing that London had placed tighter restrictions on the mobility of the Chinese diplomats – and all of this happened before
the Battle of Portland Place.
All of these points would have been clear to Xiaohong if she had simply read The Times
, which was then still a decent newspaper. The British position was also spelled out in the memoirs (published in 1971) of the British prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson. An even more illuminating British source on this incident is Percy Cradock’s Experiences of China
(1994). Cradock was at the time truly besieged – in Beijing. Nevertheless, Chinese Ambassadors
remains a valuable and very interesting piece of research. As Xiaohong says in her introduction, a serious deficiency in diplomatic studies is the absence of work on diplomats from non-Western cultures, and she has made an important step towards its correction.