Outspoken diplomat resumes his rise

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


The career prospects of former deputy foreign minister and rising diplomatic star He Yafei seemed up in the air after the failed Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. But mainland analysts say his reassignment this week to the central government's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office looks like redemption.

The 57-year-old Zhejiang native began his diplomatic career as a translator for the United Nations before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Africa department in 1984. He went on to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and spent several years in Zimbabwe, the UN and the US. In 2008, He became deputy foreign minister for American, Hong Kong and Macau affairs, after heading the ministry's North America and Oceania portfolio in Beijing for five years.

Once tipped as a strong candidate for ambassador to the US, He's smooth rise seemed to have gone off the rails when he was moved to Geneva in March 2010 as ambassador to the UN, a few months after the failed 2009 climate talks, where he was the Chinese delegation's deputy head.

The talks ended with a feeble non-binding agreement and some countries blamed the failure on China's tough stance. Some also said He's tough rhetoric in the pre-summit talks exacerbated the sour mood between China and the US.

He said US climate envoy Todd Stern either 'lacked common sense' or was 'extremely irresponsible' in saying that China should not expect US climate aid money and that the US was not in debt to the world for its historical carbon dioxide emissions.

Some analysts at the time said He acted out of line, while others said he did not say anything counter to the Chinese delegation's general mood. It is unclear whether he was punished for his role in Copenhagen or if he was a scapegoat for the failed talks. In any case, his post as deputy chief of the State Council's Overseas Chinese Affairs Office suggests he's back on track.

Two professors of international relations said He's new assignment was a positive sign: it showed that Beijing wanted him back in the capital, and wanted to give him a position from which he could be promoted.

'There are now two possibilities for He: he could be made chief of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, which is a ministerial rank, and then perhaps moved to the more powerful Taiwan Affairs Office,' one professor said. 'Or he could be moved back to the Foreign Ministry at some point.'

Here, he would have a better chance of promotion to a ministerial rank at the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office once he was chief, the professors said. The present chief, Li Haifeng, 63, is rumoured to be taking up another role and none of the four deputies has diplomatic experience. Such a rise is more difficult in the Foreign Ministry, where only two posts have ministerial rank.

It is not the first time a diplomat has moved from the Foreign Ministry to another department. Former UN ambassador Wang Guangya, 62, is the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, while former Foreign Ministry general secretary Wang Yi, 59, heads the Taiwan Affairs Office.

'We are seeing a new trend here where Chinese foreign affairs officials are increasingly seen more as politicians than career diplomats, and have to have experience beyond overseas experience,' a professor said. 'He's brief stint in Geneva shows that it was meant to be temporary from the outset. And, now, his exposure from working with the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office may be seen as broadening his portfolio beyond foreign affairs.'