Hardline hermit softens stance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am

A former UN envoy recalls how China's approach to the outside world changed

The black and white photographs hanging in Ling Qing's living room speak volumes about the octogenarian's hectic but interesting life as a diplomat representing China at the United Nations just as the country opened its doors to the world.

The moments were captured more than two decades ago, when Mr Ling served as China's third ambassador to the world body between 1980 and 1985.

But the 85-year-old still has fresh memories of China's popularity with other members from developing countries, and the way its interaction with the world changed over the years.

'Every time the head of the Chinese delegation to the UN delivered a speech, there would be a long queue of representatives from developing countries waiting to shake hands with him,' Mr Ling said.

'This never happened to other countries' delegations ... because they [the developing countries] saw China's presence at the UN as tremendous support for them.'

Mr Ling said that after 1971, China began opposing western hegemony and aligning itself mainly with other developing countries.

'Our major policy in the UN was to support developing countries ... and also oppose western hegemony and support world peace.'

Representing a country that had just started transforming itself from a hermit state to a member of the international community was no easy task. But Mr Ling was proud of China's achievements in transition.

'At the beginning of the economic reform and opening up, they [western countries] doubted if this could work. They wondered how a communist country could be as open as the west when the political system was so different,' he said. 'But now, during the financial crisis, the west is calling on China to play a more active role. In fact, China has put a lot of effort [into resolving the crisis].'

During his tenure, Mr Ling said China was not only firm in its opposition to nations invading developing countries such as Afghanistan and Cambodia, but he also helped to end the unspoken rule that the leaders of the world body were always selected from developed countries.

During the election for the post of UN secretary general in 1981, China vetoed the selection of incumbent Kurt Waldheim from Austria during 15 rounds in support of Salim Ahmed Salim from Tanzania. This resulted in the selection of Javier Perez de Cuellar from Peru.

'In the 36 years from the UN's establishment until 1981, all the UN general secretaries were candidates from developed countries. The only exception was U Thant from Burma, and he was only selected to replace Dag Hammarskjold [who died in a plane crash], as his deputy,' Mr Ling said. 'That was the first time that China's active involvement helped to change the UN's rules of the game.'

The head of the international organisation is now selected based on geography.

Gone also are the days when everything was black and white and Beijing would bluntly oppose anything the west proposed.

'These policies remain unchanged, but the way we execute them has changed. Back then, we would sternly criticise invasions by major western countries, but now, the wording we use is milder,' he said.

'Now, we are not always on the front line, sometimes we'll just follow others in opposition ... As economic globalisation advances, we need to develop an across-the-board, well-off society, and we need to embrace the world. We can't put too much emphasis on ideology as we did in the past.'

Another significant sign of China's shift in international interaction was its participation in UN peacekeeping operations.

China refused to be involved in any discussion of UN peacekeeping activities until Mr Ling announced in 1981 that it would be more flexible on the issue. Critics noted that this pointed to China's realignment with other countries, especially the US.

'In the beginning, we did not take part in any peacekeeping activities because we saw it as a tool of invasion ... and we saw it as interference in the autonomy of other countries. We didn't even bother to veto the peacekeeping proposal, we just skipped the vote,' Mr Ling said.

'But as China launched its economic reforms, we thought this issue should be treated independently and that not all peacekeeping activities were bad and invasive - some of them are positive.'

A descendant of Lin Zexu , a Qing dynasty official commonly regarded as a hero for his opposition to the opium trade, Mr Ling changed his original name, Lin Moqing, after being blacklisted by the Japanese for taking part in underground Communist Party activities in the 1940s.

'My sister also changed her surname. We thought it was not necessary to keep the surname because we were from a feudal family.'

After 1949, Mr Ling worked for the Foreign Ministry until 1985, when he assumed various political roles.

Despite retiring from the diplomatic and political world 10 years ago, Mr Ling still keeps a close eye on China's affairs with the world.

'China says it would be a responsible country, but who should you be responsible for? In a world of conflicts, America's interest would be different from Sudan's ... We can only be responsible for world peace and develop multilateral co-operation.'

World model

China has gone from an outcast to an influential voice in the United Nations since its seat was restored by a resolution of the 26th General Assembly on October 25, 1971. It is an outspoken champion of the Third World and has contributed peacekeepers to UN missions around the globe