The good news about the testy televised US-China talks in Anchorage on March 18, 2021 is that both sides felt free to exercise freedom of speech. And it’s not entirely bad news that both sides used the freedom of speech to bash one other.
Several times during the televised portion of the heated exchanges, one could only feel pity for the interpreters who had to wing it when diplomats on both sides went over the time limit and deviated from script.
Yang Jiechi brought a moment of drama to the otherwise dull meeting of masked men facing off across the cheap carpet of a second rate conference hall when he departed from prepared comments to say a few saucy things about US. He was visibly agitated at what he saw as a rude welcome full of snubs, slights and ritual humiliations.
“Strong smell of gunpowder and drama,” was the way Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the meeting, adding that China’s serious response came in reaction to “groundless attacks” by the US.
“The United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength,” complained Yang Jiechi, a veteran diplomat who in the early years of his long and respected career, showed a great deal of enthusiasm for America. He was known to be close to the Bush family and served as China’s ambassador in Washington from 2001-2005. Although he attended college in England, his daughter went to Yale. He was the foreign minister of China from 2007-2013.
Now a member of the Politburo, Yang has a voice that carries at home and abroad. He knows when to hold and when to fold, he can turn it on and turn it off. Arguably the only Politburo member who really understands America, it is shocking to hear him exclaim, “You aren’t nearly as good as we thought you were!”
This was Yang’s reaction to the “non-welcome welcome” from US Secretary of State Blinken who started things off by chastising China for falling short of US standards and urging it to get in alignment with US norms because the US sees US norms as the gold standard for the rules-based international order.
What does a grizzled diplomat say to a narcissistic host who is laying out a line of bull?
“Chinese do not eat that set!"
Do not eat what? What set? A certain kind of dish?
“Zhong guo ren bu chi zhe yi tao”
The idiomatic phrase literally means "Chinese don't eat that set" but
something gets lost in translation.
What? A set menu? Set meal?
Was Yang making a reference to the dinner menu?
Emphatically not, but more on that later.
It’s not that Yang wasn’t angry. (He might have been hungry, though)
Those seemingly innocuous words can carry a great deal of heat.
What Yang said is more akin to “the Chinese people will simply not put up with that bull!” Or “China is not gonna swallow that!” or “We are not gonna take that crap anymore!”
Already, T-shirts are being printed and sold on line with this memorably cryptic expression on it.
It’s important to consider the nuances of Yang’s idiomatic unscripted statement because unlike the propagandistic pabulum prepared in advance by both sides, it cuts to the core of the matter.
The Xinhua read-out of the meeting offered predictably bland, boilerplate rhetoric:
“The essence of China-U.S. relations is of mutual benefit and win-win results, rather than a zero-sum game. The two countries will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation.”
Yang’s eight-syllable quip contained more information than reams of Xinhua commentary.
Both sides started out with prepared statements packed with self-referential feel-good phrases but then tempers flared and they really got talking, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
As the Chinese say, “Fight first, friendship follows,” or “No fight, no friendship.”
Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan went to great lengths to wag the finger at China for not abiding by the American way. The suave diplomat Wang Yi, and Yang Jiechi, who lived in DC for four years, wagged the finger back.
The Chinese bristled at being lectured to but got in a few sharp retorts about America’s human rights failings, ranging from the genocide of Indians, the sorry history of slavery and murderous racial unrest.
Adding to Yang’s pique and displeasure was the poorly-timed move by the US to sanction 24 Chinese officials for failings of Hong Kong policy just a day before talks opened, which was interpreted as a bad faith gesture.
Was it a deliberate shot over the bow to humiliate China or just inept timing?
Sumptuous banquet scenes and maotai toasts are among the most memorable images of Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China.
Eating and drinking together makes for good optics, but it also makes for satiated statesmen. A shared meal is no empty ritual but the essence of a warm welcome. The provision of sustenance, so essential even when things are going well, is even more important when things aren’t going well.
When it comes to negotiations in high finance, the better the food, the better the mood and the better the chance of an amicable deal, even if it’s only a million-dollar deal.
The stakes in the US-China parley are considerable higher, involving the fate of billions of people and trillions of dollars in world trade.
So, what did the visiting member of China’s Politburo have for dinner at the end of his first day in Alaska?
No dinner was served, no welcome banquet given.
Yang reportedly went back to his hotel room for a simple and lonely repast. In terms of poignancy, it ranks right up there with the scene sketched by James Joyce about a down-on-his-luck Dubliner having a plate of boiled peas for dinner.
Sad. And it would be funny, too, were it not for the fact that the fates of two nuclear powers are in the balance.
Deliberate snubs and insults could inadvertently spark a downward spiral leading to war.
“Chinese do not eat that crock,” echoes the cry.
It’s a homespun way of saying it’s time to cut the BS and get down to serious business.
Extra bonus: Photo above of "zhongguo ren bu chi zhe yi tao" commemorative T-shirt.
Below some photos and customer reviews of the Captain Cook, the Anchorage hotel where the US State Department saw fit to meet with its important guests from China.
One can almost understand why Yang Jiechi opted for instant noodles in his room, but as some reviews point out, microwaves generally not available in this hotel.
ANCHORAGE CAPTAIN COOK HOTEL REVIEWS:
-Old outdated hotel. They dont have microwaves for the rooms. The microwave they do have, they wont let you have access to unless they have a staff member take your food out of your site and warm it up for you. With how uncleanly the rooms look and dishevelled the workers seem, I wouldnt trust them with my food. Dont stay here.
-I get to the room and the cleaning staff must have forgotten their gear when they left because there was cleaning supplies, restocking supplies,and a case of bottled water. For $140 a night, I would "expect" a little better. Room was ok; it served its purpose of somewhere to sleep so I didn't have to drive home in the dark but definitely NOT worth it.
-Overpriced, old, out of the ordinary, and outrageous! Pics speak for themselves.
-Nice historic hotel, but lacking in room amenities. I didn't even know they still had hotel rooms without a microwave? Fridge was as small as they come. For the nightly rate, I expected more. I cut my 11 night stay short as a result.
-Bed bug infestation. You do not want to stay here unless you wanna take critters home... room was infested and when I told the front desk staff they apologized but as I walked off and looked over my shoulder they laugh like it was funny... dont even deserve one star
-Little out dated and steep in price. Still pretty nice and give you the feel of Anchorage during the boom. This place was the go to spot for quality and Elegance 20 years ago.