On foreign territory

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 December, 2010, 12:00am

Every week, the Foreign Ministry has to parry questions from journalists on a wide array of issues, some of which have little to do with foreign affairs. On the hot topic of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo , for example, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice were involved, as well as organs of the ruling Chinese Communist party. Yet it was the Foreign Ministry that had to bear the brunt of sometimes hostile questioning from the world's media.

Often, issues raised at Foreign Ministry press conferences involve the People's Liberation Army, such as submarine intrusions into Japanese territorial waters, allegations of intrusions along the disputed Sino-Indian border and the testing of anti-satellite weapons.

The Chinese military does not customarily share information with the Foreign Ministry. And yet it is the ministry's officials who have to defend the military's actions. Quite possibly, at times the Foreign Ministry's spokespeople are as uninformed as their questioners. This is particularly true in human rights cases, where the security authorities certainly do not answer to the Foreign Ministry.

Thus, when a journalist asked last year about the whereabouts of the human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng , who had been taken away from his home and 'disappeared', the Foreign Ministry spokesman, who in all likelihood had no idea where Gao was, responded: 'The relevant judicial authorities have decided that this case, and we should say this person, according to Chinese law, is where he should be.'

Major decisions are made by the ruling Communist Party, and yet the Foreign Ministry today has no representative in the party's upper echelons, unlike in the past, making its work difficult.

The extent of party involvement was suggested in a WikiLeaks cable, which disclosed that a Politburo member had ordered a cyberattack on Google last year, another issue that the Foreign Ministry had to tackle.

If the Chinese government expects the Foreign Ministry to continue to be the primary agency that deals with the outside world, then it needs to give the ministry greater authority so that other ministries will at least agree to keep it informed of their work.

Ironically, the importance of the Foreign Ministry's work was recognised early on. When the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, premier Zhou Enlai was concurrently the foreign minister. Nine years later, he was succeeded as foreign minister by Chen Yi, who was already a vice-premier and who held both positions until 1972.

The legendary Huang Hua , who died recently at the age of 97, served as foreign minister and vice-premier from 1976 to 1982. Even as recently as the 1990s, Qian Qichen was concurrently vice-premier and a Politburo member when he was foreign minister, giving both himself and the ministry more clout, not only when dealing with the outside world, but also when dealing with other ministries and agencies within the State Council. But, since the 1990s, no serving foreign minister has had the status of a national leader.

True, Qian's successors, Tang Jiaxuan, Li Zhaoxing and the current foreign minister, Yang Jiechi , have all been members of the party's Central Committee. But that is a body of some 300 people and hardly confers the authority a foreign minister needs to deal with his counterparts in the cabinet.

So the foreign minister has gone from a job held concurrently by the premier, to one held by a vice-premier, to one today that merely reports to a state councillor. Not only that, but he reports to the most junior of the five state councillors, Dai Bingguo .

This is not good for the Foreign Ministry, or for China. If the ministry is to be effective, its head ought to serve concurrently as at least a state councillor - not report to one. Only then can the ministry do its job properly for the country.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator