The many ways to play a role in China's foreign relations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am

The Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Zhang Qiyue, visiting Hong Kong as a guest of the government until tomorrow, gave a talk recently, titled 'China's Foreign Policy and China-Asean Relations'.

During the question-and-answer session, Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, the new vice-chancellor and president of Chinese University, asked the diplomat for some career advice on behalf of his students.

How, he wondered, could students at the university prepare themselves to join the Chinese diplomatic service and perhaps, one day, serve as an ambassador or Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Zhang was the spokeswoman from 1998 to 2004, when she appeared on television every week and answered questions from the foreign media.

The ambassador replied that there was no need for Hong Kong students to join the Foreign Ministry and become diplomats. Every student, she said, was already an ambassador - for the university, for Hong Kong and for China.

She did not say so, but it would be difficult for any student to follow in her footsteps. After all, Zhang's career path has been unprecedented.

She was born into a diplomatic family. Her father, Zhang Shu, was appointed counsellor in the Chinese mission to the United Nations shortly after Beijing joined the world body in 1971. He rose to become an ambassador, first to Belgium and then to Japan.

The daughter was sent to New York in 1974, at the age of 14, with three other youngsters to learn English as part of a policy approved by chairman Mao Zedong . As a result, ambassador Zhang today speaks American-accented English.

In 1983, she was appointed counsellor at the Chinese mission to the United Nations - the same position her father had held a decade earlier - and, in 2005, she became ambassador to Belgium, a post her father had held 20 years previously.

While Zhang's career path may not be one that students can emulate, her advice is sound.

There is no need for Hongkongers to join the Foreign Ministry. In fact, Hong Kong's value to China has long been reflected in Beijing's actions.

In 1949, when the People's Liberation Army swept southward, it conspicuously stopped at the British colony's doorstep in order to ensure the continued usefulness of Hong Kong to New China.

The wisdom of this policy was proved when Hong Kong was instrumental in undermining the embargo against China instituted during the Korean war.

Hong Kong was also invaluable to China as an intelligence outpost, a role that it continues to perform today.

When Deng Xiaoping became the country's new strongman and instituted economic reforms, he designated the fishing village of Shenzhen as the first special economic zone - to take advantage of its proximity to Hong Kong, an international city.

Hong Kong's continued value to Shenzhen, and to mainland China, was reflected in the one-on-one meeting that President Hu Jintao had with tycoon Li Ka-shing last week. During that meeting, the president paid tribute to the Hong Kong entrepreneur as 'a witness to the development of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as well as an important participant in building it'.

After 1997, Hong Kong's value to mainland China in terms of international influence and outreach was, if anything, enhanced.

Without having to join the Foreign Ministry, Hongkongers have contributed to China's diplomatic standing.

For example, the only major United Nations specialised agency headed by a Chinese national today is the World Health Organisation, whose director general, Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, was Hong Kong's director of health during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

And while Chan is the most prominent, she is not the only Hongkonger who, through her own ability, has achieved much for both Hong Kong and China.

Hong Kong-born Diana Liao, for example, who is proficient in English, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian, held the position of chief interpreter at the United Nations before she retired in 2004.

So Zhang is right in saying that Hong Kong students who wish to play a role in China's foreign relations do not need to join the diplomatic service. There are many other ways in which they can serve.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.