Retiring minister no stranger to applause

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2007, 12:00am

Outgoing Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing took many by surprise when he appeared at a function last night for foreign diplomats and media representatives.

Despite the news on Thursday that he would retire in favour of Yang Jiechi, he was expected to give a speech on foreign policy, which had been arranged some weeks ago.

But, instead of a speech, he came to say goodbye.

'We will maintain peace and friendship,' he said, after shaking hands and hugging guests at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse gathering.

His appearance earned a big round of applause - something he has often enjoyed during his four-year tenure.

Mr Li is popular among diplomats and students but is no stranger to criticism. His pugnacious style in confronting China's critics, and his tendency to show off his poetry-writing skills and Shandong dialect have been criticised as undiplomatic.

But Mr Li is rated highly within the ministry. 'He is easy-going and plays table tennis with young diplomats. What's more, he understands his staff,' said one staffer.

He is known for his humour and taking questions from the press. His appearance at the annual session of the National People's Congress always drew a big media crowd.

Mr Li made his name as a feisty defender of China's interests during his tenure in the US, first as ambassador to the UN between 1993 and 1995, and later as ambassador to Washington.

He is best remembered for his appearance on US television after Nato aircraft bombed China's embassy in Belgrade. He said the incident was no 'casual mistake' and demanded an investigation and apology.

Born to a rural family in Qingdao , Mr Li is a graduate of Peking University. After joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs he was posted to Kenya for seven years in the 1970s and then to Lesotho for three years in 1980s.

He has published more than 200 poems and often hands them out as personal gifts.