Qian Qichen – a master diplomat who earned respect
China’s former foreign minister, who died at the age of 89, helped the country navigate a series of hot-button issues including the return of Hong Kong and Macau from colonial rule
China owes much to Qian Qichen (錢其琛). The former foreign minister and vice-premier, who died on Tuesday at the age of 89, set a calm and pragmatic tone to the nation’s diplomacy at times when it was most needed. His mastery helped steer Hong Kong and Macau back to Chinese sovereignty and was adeptly used to navigate foreign crises. Those skills and his style are a model for all diplomats, no matter where in the world they come from.
Qian was closely involved in Hong Kong and Macau affairs from the early 1980s until his retirement from the State Council in 2003. As vice-foreign minister, foreign minister, chair of the preparatory committees of the special administrative regions and finally, vice-premier, he performed crucial roles as both a negotiator and adviser. His understanding of the West and a calm demeanour were critical to smoothing difficulties with London, among them a threatened British withdrawal from an agreement in the wake of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown and the construction of a new airport at Chek Lap Kok that was originally perceived by Beijing as an attempt to drain Hong Kong’s financial reserves. He laid out rules for post-1997 Hong Kong-Taiwan relations and maintained watch after the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty, at one time emphasising the importance of enacting national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
His diplomatic know-how also ended the isolation the West imposed on China after June 4, initially through talks with the United States. Other setbacks that were overcome included the Taiwan Straits missile crisis and the mid-air collision in 2001 of a Chinese jet fighter and an American surveillance plane over the South China Sea. His skills also enabled the forging of ties with South Korea, a matter that had to be delicately handled with close ally North Korea.
Those challenges were among 10 diplomatic triumphs he related in a groundbreaking memoir. The same belief in transparency led to his appointment as the first foreign ministry spokesman, a system that was adopted by other ministries. With so many achievements, it is little wonder that with his passing, he has been remembered in Hong Kong and elsewhere with such fondness and respect.