Friday, May 08, 2020

"I think all your information is coming from the Washington Post": Chinese Ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming's Interview on BBC's HARDtalk

In The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Non-Chinese Peoples: Chinese Diplomatic Strategies Online and in Social Media I explored the discursive significance of recent approaches of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its Ambassadors in key posts, to control the image it has curated outside of China relating to its engagement with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way it relates an internal Chinese perspective to its external sensitivity to Western challenges to China's narration of the pandemic and China's role in meeting the challenges of the pandemic.  The object was not to sort through the substance of this narration or of its challenge, but rather to examine its discursive forms and underlying rationale as a way to unearth the perception of the world held by those who are managing these strategies of outward engagement with foreign governments and the people they represent.

No sooner had the reflections been published than the Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Liu Xiaoming, walked into the lion's den of U.K. conventional journalism to give an interview on the BBC's HARDtalk (video available here; transcript provided by the UK Chinese Embassy available here and below). This program describes itself on its website as providing "in-depth interviews with hard-hitting questions and sensitive topics being covered as famous personalities from all walks of life talk about the highs and lows in their lives." It was the perfect venue for evidencing Chinese fearlessness in the face of Western provocation, its willingness to engage such provocation, and in in this way to manage its narrative under fire.

This post examines the interview for its discursive and self-reflexive elements drawing on the insights of The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Non-Chinese Peoples. Indeed, the interview evidences a master of the Chinese discursive style weaving through his answers not merely a reinforcement of the Chinese narrative of the pandemic, but doing so in a way that accords with the sensitives of image making, of the connection between narrative control and (1) objective national status, (2) subjective status (in relation to an imperial power of a past era in this case), and (3) the alignment of pandemic narrative with ideological triumphalism.  Only time will tell the extent to which the desired effect is at last achieved.

What  follows is the transcript of the interview with Ambassador Liu annotated with brief reflections (in red).

Ambassador Liu Xiaoming Gives Exclusive Interview on BBC's HARDtalk

On April 28, 2020, H.E. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming gave an exclusive interview on BBC's HARDtalk hosted by Stephen Sackur, where he shared the timeline of China's efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 and gave an update on what China is doing to join the international cooperation in response to the pandemic. The full transcript is as follows.
(LCB) In this introduction to the transcript one sees the importance of framing the give and take that follows within a narrative framework that emphasizes the primary narrative export.  That framing is built around an official timeline in which are embedded the key elements of the narrative ((1)origin stories, (2) Chinese internationalism, and (3) alignment with the political-economic model which served as the key to Chinese triumph over the pandemic).  It is important to keep these three primary element very much in mind as one goes through the interview. The origin story is meant to deflect Western charges that the pandemic is a "Wuhan" or "Chinese" disease. This is an important point in a multilateral world order increasingly embracing notions not just of accountability, but of tort in public international law, one which seeks to have states pay for the overseas consequences of what may be accounted as negligent, reckless or intentional acts).  The Chinese can do little about the march of accountability regimes in the international sphere (and now deeply culturally embedded within OECD states in their public and private cultures). The origin story is the means of avoiding this issue of accountability/liability.  Chinese internationalism is built around notions of cooperation and are meant to advance the Chinese policy of mutually advantageous cooperation.  This is a key element around which China is seeking to put its own mark not just on the discourse of public multilateralism, but on the way in which foreign relations might be undertaken and judged.  Beyond that, of course, is the value of gesture. The third, alignment with the political-economic model is not in evidence in this introduction. It emerges in the interview itself and serves as the background for the discursive style adopted.

Sackur: Ambassador Liu Xiaoming, welcome to Hardtalk.

Ambassador: Thank you. Good to be with you again.

Sackur: We are delighted to have you on our program in this difficult time. Let me start actually with a very simple direct question: Do you accept that Covid-19 has its origins in China?

Ambassador: It was first discovered in Wuhan, but I can't say it's originated from Wuhan. According to many reports including BBC, it can be anywhere. It can be found on aircraft carriers. It can even be found in the submarine. It is found in some countries which have very little connection with China and also can be found in groups of people who have never been to China. So we cannot say it's originated from China. 
(LCB) It is in this first round of questions that the Ambassador is given a lovely opportunity to expand on the Chinese official response to the origin story. There is a world of difference between origin and manifestation, and between manifestation and recognition of the COVID-19 virus as such.  It is in the large spaces between these concepts that the Ambassador is able to invite inference.  The object, clearly, is to invite meaning making that causes the gaze to shift from China to, in this case, the unknowable.  It is a wonderful lawyer's answer to a difficult question but nicely sets out the essence of the Chinese position on the origin question (and thus the question of accountability, and thereafter of liability (at least moral/political liability).  

Sackur: I'm a little confused by that answer. Clearly, it is a new virus. It originated somewhere. It seems, according to all of the immunologists and virologists, they crossed from animals to humans. And there was a first case and then it spread. There is no doubt that the first case was in China. I'm wondering why you are telling me that it spread all over the world and people who caught it had never been to China. That is clear because it's become a pandemic. But the question that matters so much is: Where did it start?

Ambassador: I think this question is still up for scientists to decide. I read the report that the first case in China was reported on the 27th December by Dr. Zhang Jixian to Chinese local health authorities. But I also read reports that some of the cases were found to be much earlier than that. We read even the report by your newspapers yesterday that your scientists, medical advisers, even warned your government that there might be a virus unknown to us, much earlier, last year. So all I can say is that the first reported case in China was on 27th of December in Wuhan.

(LCB) The initial answer is here elaborated more pointedly in response to the question of the alignment of discovery and origin. First, in the manner of a good lawyer, the Ambassador pleads scientific uncertainty.  Next he weaves the debates among Western scientists about manifestation to layer uncertainty as not a Chinese but a global problem. And that is the point.  The timeline narrative is focused not on proving the existence of a thing but on negating any certainty as to its existence (in this case on "origin" as opposed to manifestation, as opposed to recognition). It is a risky strategy (eventually) but one that has short term benefits, the principal among them centered on the issue of accountability.  The second and perhaps more important, is to reduce the importance or significance of the Chinese initial responses to the pandemic in Wuhan as no longer a central issue of accountability or containment obligations owed to the international community.  This was a critical point that was well projected in this short response. It also evidences a discursive style that appears to be dear to the Ambassador--the "turning the tables" strategy. That is an essential element of the unequal status sensitivity. 

Sackur: I think there's no doubt experts believe the origin of the first outbreak, first examples of this Covid-19 virus to be found in human beings, came from Wuhan and the surrounding area in China. I just wonder whether you accept that it is very important that we understand exactly what happened at the beginning of this outbreak, that we understand frankly what mistakes and missteps were made, which allowed the first outbreak to become a global pandemic.

Ambassador: I think it is still debatable. I think we have to agree to disagree. I think it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, but I can't say it originated from Wuhan. Let me tell you the timeline of China's fight against this virus. It was first reported on the 27th of December by Dr. Zhang, and then Chinese health authorities and CDC notified the WHO four days later, on the 31st of December, in the shortest possible time, and then share this information with other countries. China also shared the discovery of the pathogen with the WHO in the shortest possible time, and also shared the information about the genetic sequence of the virus in the shortest possible time.
(LCB) Here, pressed, the Ambassador drives home the point.  And again he "stays on message" using the opportunity to again recite the official timeline.  But there is more than that here.  The idea here is to advance the premise of Chinese responsibility (and thus going to issues of status, e.g., exercising the responsibility of a first rank state) and one whose science is equal to that of those states now challenging its version of things (with a dollop of response here to notions of equality).   But unstated are the complications of this strategy that are only now being refined in the Western responses to the very smart origin strategy pursued by the Foreign Ministry (see, e.g., Did European athletes catch coronavirus while competing at World Military Games in Wuhan in OCTOBER? French delegation returned with fevers, after fishmonger is found to have been contaminated in December), something for which the Ministry ought to have prepared its ambassadors in key states.

Sackur: Ambassador, let me just interrupt you on this question of timeline because you missed out one very important point. On December 30th, a doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, used his chat group online to tell fellow doctors that there was a new and very worrying disease in Wuhan. He advised his colleagues that they must wear protective clothing to avoid this new infection. And just a couple of days later, he was summoned to the public security bureau. He was made to sign a letter in which he confessed to making false statements that had severely disturbed the social order. That was the beginning of an official cover-up, which continued through the month of January.

Ambassador: As I said earlier, now I understand why there's a so-called call for independent investigation. They try to find excuse for them to criticize China for cover-up. But the fact is that Li Wenliang was not the first one who discovered this virus. As I told you, it was Dr. Zhang Jixian, and she reported 3 days earlier than Li Wenliang to the health authorities. Then, the health authorities in Wuhan reported to the central government, and then four days later, that means one day after Li Wenliang spread the word, the Chinese authorities shared the information with the WHO and other countries. No cover-up at all.
(LCB) Here, again, China is pressed on its responsibility (the accountability discursive trope that has been used to some gain by the West). Li Wenliang is a sensitive element of that discourse. The response is discursively predictable though disappointing (defensiveness in the form of the only reason for investigation is anti-Chinese animus).  But more importantly, Chinese internal sensitivities produced an awkward answer.  Rather than speak to Li Wenliang--with respect to which the Ambassador could have used the official report of the government investigation to advantage--chose instead to ignore it (今日晚间,国家监委调查组发布关于群众反映的涉及李文亮医生有关情况调查的通报。[Tonight, the investigation team of the State Supervision Commission released a report on the investigation of the situation involving Dr. Li Wenliang, which was reported by the masses.]). But again, the principal concern appear to be the question of accountability--and the question of accountability centers on China's reputation as a first rank power; the failure to observe the forms of which ignite fears of the unequal treaty period status issues. And thus the time line. This tells us a lot about how the Chinese Foreign Ministry measures the relative importance of the facts built into its timeline.

Sackur: With respect, Mr. Ambassador, the information that was shared was actually extremely limited, because on January 14th, we now know this from leaks that have been given to the Washington Post and the Associated Press, we know that internally China's national health commission head, Mr. Ma Xiaowei, laid out a very grim assessment of what was happening. He said that the situation was severe. Complex, clustered cases suggest human to human transmission is happening, the memo said. The risk of transmission and spread is high, but in public, that was internal, but in public, the head of China's disease control emergency center, the very next day, said the risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low, that it was preventable and controllable. So, I put it to you again, there is compelling evidence that China for weeks did not tell the truth.

Ambassador: You give me not enough time to answer your question. I haven't answered the question with regard to Li Wenliang. You talk about cover-up. That's not true. Dr. Zhang reported through a normal channel to health authorities, but Li spread this word among his friends. In any country when you have something like the virus which is dangerous to people's health, when there is something unknown, there might be a panic. So I think the police authority summoned Li to warn him not to do it. You can't say this is a cover-up, since we reported through the normal channel. But on this, we need to make sure that there should be no panic. Even today, in the UK, I think your government is fighting misinformation. Some people try to use this to create panic for their own gain.

I think Li's case is closed. After it's reported to the central authorities, the government sent investigation team down to Wuhan and find out that Li did the right thing and the police reprimand has been revoked. And Li was made a martyr and given the highest honor for his contribution.
(LCB) The real disjunction between the way that Westerners approach the issues and the Chinese perspective is here nicely highlighted. And again the rigidity of a self-referencing discursive style grounded in an embrace of a specific operating perspective might well be deemed to have caused the Ambassador an opportunity to advance a Chinese position already taken (with respect to Li Wenliang) and then to contextualize it in a way that might have diverted the Western challenge. Instead, what one hears is dismissal and irritation. The focus was on a complaint--the West has made Li Wenliang a martyr and is using it to slander China. .  What one might be excused for hearing, instead, is the "reading bad motives into everything we do" refrain. But all states seek advantage by painting others in a darker light--those are just the rules of the game.--one that China plays as well as any. And the retreat to this discursive trope again speaks volumes. A pity, really, and an opportunity lost.  But at the same time a revelation of what the Ambassador has been instructed to view as important--interference in internal affairs, efforts to undermine the political-economic system through criticism, and unequal treatment (e.g., the "in any other country" reference).

Sackur: Dr. Li was in deed regarded by the Chinese people as a hero when he died.

Ambassador: Not only by the Chinese people, but also regarded by the Chinese government. You cannot separate.
(LCB) Indeed, here at last the Ambassador seeks to clean things up by a passing reference to the investigation and to the conversion of Li Wenliang as an honored martyr within and outside China. But this is bracketed by a discourse in which the effective use of this reference is at best muted.
Sackur: With respect, I think the people of China are very aware, and I come back to it, that the Chinese government wasn't straight with them, nor with the outside world. Just tell me, if you can one more time, why on January 14 the national health commission document -- that was an internal document -- was labeled not to be spread on the internet, not to be publicly disclosed, in which they said that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, clustered cases, severe and complex problem?

Ambassador: I think all your information is coming from Washington Post. I think you depend too much on American media. I really hope you will depend on the WHO for information. We share all the information with the WHO. I saw your interview with Mr. David Nabarro, and I think China has been straightforward, transparent, and swift in terms of sharing information with the WHO. Of course, inside China, we have to take cautious measures. We have to take strict measures to fight this virus. It is still unknown then. So people did not know what will happen, what this virus was about. But on the one hand, we share our knowledge, our understanding, with the WHO, with the other countries.
(LCB) Aaaaahhh my favorite point of the entire interview.  Here there is a remarkable convergence of the point made by the Chinese Ambassadors to the U.K. and France (see, The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Non-Chinese Peoples, supra).  The irony is augmented because almost at the same time this statement is made oh so glibly, his counterpart, the Chinese Ambassador to the UNited States chose to insert his intervention for the American people (and its elites) in the Washington Post. The feeding of anti-American sentiment, and the drive to marginalize the American discourse is at the heart of this answer.  From the Chinese perspective, of course, that ought to be the major target of these interventions in the debates taking place within the political environments of the closest allies of the United States.  This is part of a more complex strategy that touches on economic objectives (the Belt and Road Initiative), fiscal objectives (the globalization of the RMB and now the facilitation of the use of the RMB as a digital currency); and the management of global discourse). To be able to detach the direction of global discourse from the Americans, even if it is not redirected to the Chinese, would be a spectacular advantage. Certainly it is one worth pursuing.  In the process, of course, the Ambassador uses the reference in passing to defend WHO.  That is of critical importance given the large investment China has made in that organization.  Unstated of course, is a large undercurrent of criticism, years in the making of this organization (and those operating at the state level) for their cronyism and unresponsiveness.  To the extent that this is avoided, there is a risk for the Chinese strategy to align its prestige with that of these organizations. And, in the process there is an underlining risk if these organizations are eventually discredited. . . . publicly in ways that matter.  
Sackur: But Ambassador, with all respect, your problem is -- you're a very senior diplomat and you know this is a problem -- that many people around the world simply don't believe the Chinese version of events. Donald Trump, only a few hours ago, said that he is not happy at all with China's stance. They could have stopped the virus at the source, he said, we are undertaking a thorough investigation. And the Vice President Mike Pence has listed a whole host of reasons why the United States believes that China was not straight with the world and is therefore culpable for the fact this pandemic is now causing so much death and so much economic damage right around the world. You have, as China, a massive problem now.

Ambassador: I don't think so. When you say that China has a massive problem, I think you're talking more about the Western world. Since the outbreak, China has had very strong cooperation with the WHO and with many other countries. We sent technical assistance and experts to and provide medical supplies for more than 150 countries. All of them spoke highly of Chinese efforts. So I can't say the United States represents the world. And even in the Western world, we've been receiving appreciation from the countries like United Kingdom, from France, from Germany.

You quote President Trump. Let me also quote his comments about China. On 24th of January, that was almost one month after we discovered this virus. He said, United States greatly appreciates China's efforts and transparency. Six days later and he said, they are working very hard, and we are working very closely with China. In early February, he said, President Xi is doing a great job, he handles it well
(LCB) Here one finds the crux of the problem that China faces in the construction and projection of its time line and with it its effort to shape the discourse of accountability and cooperation. Mr. Sackur was not incorrect--the principal issue for the Foreign Ministry is not the construction of a timeline, or the exploitation of cooperative gesture, it is the problem of credibility.  And here the problem actually then touches on the most sensitive issue for Chinese discourse--the alignment of credibility with the perception of the ordering premises of the Chinese political-economic model when viewed in Western terms. The issue is delicate and sensitive--but not just on the Chinese side.  The difficulty here is the contradiction that these sorts of questions raises for Chinese external discourse: how does one meet the issue of Western incredulity without undermining the fundamental operating premises of political-economic model? The response--"When you say that China has a massive problem, I think you're talking more about the Western world"--merits some thought. To merely turn this around and to make it a Western problem is to practice the art of deflection and avoidance. But this is precisely the context where that discursive trope is the least helpful to China. It was fun, though, to take a poke at the Americans in the process ("So I can't say the United States represents the world."), but to what extent did that make points with Western listeners who aren't part of the anti-Trump and anti-American intelligentsia? And the answer is not necessarily to press the level of Chinese international cooperation or to reference the remarks of President Trump in praise of China's actions through February when the course of American political calculus (for both political parties) changed.  
Sackur: Things have changed a great deal since the end of January. You say, look at what we've done to deliver medical assistance and equipment around the world. What many people see is China running a campaign of disinformation and propaganda around the world in recent weeks. You say, we have a great relationship with France. The French just called in your counterpart, the Chinese Ambassador in France, accusing him of spreading disinformation because the Embassy website in Paris is claiming that old people in care homes in France are being abandoned to suffer and die alone. That's a colleague of yours. Another colleague of yours in the Foreign Ministry use social media to promote the conspiracy theory that the US military has smuggled coronavirus into China. Why is your country running this disinformation campaign?

Ambassador: I think you'll pick a wrong target. It's not China who started this campaign of disinformation. If you could compare China's statements and comments by Chinese leaders, Chinese diplomats, Chinese Ambassadors, with their American counterpart, you will know who is spreading disinformation.
(LCB) Again pressed, the Ambassador seeks refuge in deflection.  In the West this has played less less for local Western political figures in recent times, it is unlikely to process a different reaction when deployed by the ambassador of a foreign state. KLet us consider the response, however, from a discursive perspective. On the one hand it could lend itself to serve as an admission by omission. Alternatively it can be read not just as an admission but one justified by the bad conduct of others.  But to justify one's own bad conduct by reference to that of another in the context of pandemic could also lend strength to the argument made earlier relating to the Chinese "credibility gap." That was a tarp nicely laid for the Ambassador into which he might have inadvertently walked into here. Lastly, it exposes the real object--the battle for dominance in the discursive realm between the United States and China--a battle in which the people of the UK (and France) are just collateral damage.
Sackur: Do you agree with Zhao Lijian, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman who did put up the link suggesting that the US military has smuggled coronavirus into China? Is that something that you also believe?

Ambassador: I think what you're saying is that Mr. Zhao retweeted some media report. I do not know why you focus on some comments by individuals in China but miss the disinformation by senior officials, even the national leaders, of the United States who started this campaign of disinformation, especially by the top diplomat, the secretary of state? When it comes to China, there's not any good word about China. And China is really regarded as an evil, not as a country which has been lending a helping hand to America in the fight against this virus. I do not quite understand.
(LCB) This theme of deflection and avoidance is evidenced here again.  But the Ambassador wa in a bind of sorts.  He could not acknowledge the statement without getting into its substance.  And he could not get into its substance because of the shifting and uncertain position of the Foreign Ministry with respect to its central claims. The only thing left then is deflection and a re-emphasis on the United States.  But that re-emphasis again poses a problem: if indeed all is undertaken as a reflection or reaction to the United States, then what of the status of China as a first rank power. And here, again, the answer is discursively weak. He first turns the question into a generalized indictment of the way in which the world looks at China (unfairly--again the underlying sensitivity to status).  But perhaps less useful was the way that this stance inevitably substantially expands that indictment (well beyond the intent of the question or the opportunity it presented to avoid this entirely) from a simple question about the statement of an official (which could have been avoided by a "you will have to ask him" answer) to a characterization of the foreigner generally as regarding China as "evil." Here again the underlying foundation is internal to Chinese perceptions but it expresses a discourse that undermines Chinese cooperative internationalism by suggesting a core grounding in suspicion of the motives of others and an assumption that the "steady state" of foreigners is inevitably anti_Chinese. A pity. 
Sackur: In your view, Ambassador, how deep is the crisis with the United States right now, that has been sparked by all of the accusations that have arisen from the coronavirus? How deep is the diplomatic crisis?

Ambassador: We certainly want to have good relations with the United States. I've been posted twice in Washington, DC. I always believe that China and the United States will gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. And we have every reason to have a good relationship with the United States. But it has to be based on mutual trust, coordination and non-confrontation. But you need two to tango.

Since the outbreak, President Xi and President Trump have kept very close contact. They had two telephone conversations and compared notes, just as President Xi had two telephone conversations with Prime Minister Johnson. We want to build international response to this virus.

I just want to let Americans know that China is not an enemy of the United States. It's the virus that is the enemy of the United States. They need to find the right target.
(LCB) And that the interview to the heart of the issue--the state of relations between the United States and China.  The answer is polished.  But it also expresses some interesting ideas.  The first is the admission that the present state of relations with the United States are not good.  That is true in part because both China and the United States define good in very different ways--an idea that would have been indiscreet to elaborate for a BBC audience certainly. But the ambassador intimates its contours in the national foreign policy line from which it seeks to establish an international consensus: mutually beneficial cooperation based on the 5 principles of international relations.  Second, it emphasizes the importance of some sort of accord to at least produce stability in relations. Yet at the same time it reveals the unwillingness to accommodate deviations from the national foreign policy line as the basis for mutual accord.  And of course that produces the admission that relations will not likely be stable for a long time to come.  How long? Until the relative power of the two states has been readjusted to suit. The third is the effort to construct from the state of US-China relations the "fact" that the US considers China an enemy.  But of course that tells us more about the Chinese view than it does of the American, which has continued to view China as a strategic (if dangerous) rival-competitor) but which has reserved the status of enemy to a much smaller group of states. Yet, it is an effective discursive trope that China plays well here.
Sackur: It's a very important message you're sending. Maybe China could consider some gestures that would improve relations with not just the United States but many other countries, including Australia and the UK who've made the same point to your government.

One, will you now categorically guarantee to close down the so-called "wet markets", that there will no longer be the sale of these live wild animals in the food markets that are known as the "wet markets"? Is that now something that has been banned, not just short term, but absolutely banned forever in China?

Ambassador: First, on your first point about "many countries", I cannot agree with you that China has a problem with many countries. I would say we have more friends than opponents or enemies. A few Western countries do not represent the world. I think China enjoy good relationships. And I think we are building international response. As President Xi said, solidarity and cooperation are the most powerful weapons to fight the pandemic. I will come back to the "wet market".
(LCB) Here the Ambassador uses the opportunity to push forward the US containment policy (one into which the Americans have been all to eager to play into Chinese plans but for their own reasons). Status issues requires of course that the world view China as friend.  And friendship means the absence of problems. Here there is a discursive disjuntion in the sense that the question asked and answered go to wholly different points based on distinct meaning tropes.  In the West the nature of relationships embeds problems and resolution--relationships are outwardly and sometimes formally messy and unpleasant even among the best of friends.  To ask the question then merely points to the public acknowledgement and resolution of difference.  But the discursive forms of foreign relations are not understood in that way by the Foreign Ministry and its discourse has made that possibility nearly impossible.  The Ambassador's inability to capitalize on that difference to advance the Chinese perspective was a lost opportunity.
Sackur: Ambassador, we are short of time. I just need specific answer on the "wet markets". Are they right now closed for good, yes or no?

Ambassador: There's no such a thing as "wet market". This is a Western, a foreign, notion to many Chinese. We do have fresh food markets where fresh vegetables, fresh seafood, fish, are sold, and some live poultry. I think you are talking about the so-called illegal market for selling wildlife. That has been totally banned. The law has been passed and it will be banned permanently. It's illegal……

Sackur: That is therefore a recognition -- I just want to be clear -- a recognition on your government's part that the dangers of those markets, where live wild animals were sold alongside other food stuff, they were dangers that did cause the spread coronavirus from animals to humans.

Ambassdor: I agree with that. Finally, we have a few points to agree on. I'm very pleased with that. That's why this market, we're talking about illegal wildlife market, is totally banned. It's illegal to hunt, to trade, to eat wild animals.
(LCB) The back and forth on the wet markets was fairly conventional.  To the interviewer's question about practice, the Ambassador countered with formal rule. That was an elegant evasion. The real issue, of course, was the steps that local officials undertook to enforce the ban--and more importantly when the formal ban was put in place--as well as its scope. It was also a missed opportunity for education in cultural difference that the Ambassador missed--especially with respect to dining cultures.
Sackur: So people watching this will only wish that you had made that ban real before coronavirus spread and cause such terrible damage around the world. Are you in any way prepared to say sorry for what has happened?

Ambassador: So you come to your the first point again. You can't blame China for coronavirus. That's the problem of this argument. It was found in China. It was found in many other places that have no connection with China at all. So you can't point your fingers at China for the outbreak, and we have done our best.

China is a victim of the coronavirus, but China is not a source of this problem. China is not the producer of this epidemic, and that is something we have to come clean about.
(LCB) And here it all comes together.  No matter where the questions go, the underlying sensitivity always brings them back to this foundation point.  Accountability and responsibility; failures of both as an indictment of the political-economic model that made those failures possible, and the consequential belligerence read into the question.  Here the opportunity to evade by blaming local officials and using that as a basis for praising both the political-economic model and its efficiency in meeting the crisis was lost.  And that lost opportunity provided the very opening that the Ambassador sought to avoid--one which was nicely put in the last question.
Sackur: China is seen, for example, by leading politicians in this country, like the Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee, as very much the cause. He's talked about a soviet style system, a toxic system, inside your government, inside your regime, which he says has been responsible not just for betraying the Chinese people and their health or wellbeing, but betraying the wider world as well. And there are now calls in the United Kingdom, and also calls in the United States and other countries, for a disengagement from close economic ties with China. In Britain, it's of course centered on Huawei, your telephones giant's activities in the 5G sector. People say that should no longer be tolerated in the United Kingdom. As the Ambassador in the UK, are you worried that there is going to be now an economic disengagement?

Ambassador: Yes and no. I think you talk about this person as a very senior politician, but I don't think this view represents the official position of the UK government.

I think the UK government under Prime Minister Johnson is still committed to stronger partnership with China. In his two telephone conversations with President Xi, he reaffirmed UK's commitment to building a Golden Era with China. And we do have very good cooperation with the UK side throughout this outbreak, in addition to intensive communication. I've been here for 10 years as a Chinese Ambassador. I have never seen that our top leaders have such an intensive communications between them.

And also at the ministerial level, we have our State Counselor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi having telephone conversation with Secretary Raab, and Yang Jiechi, Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, having close contact with the Sir Mark Sedwill. Here in London, I have very close contact with the government secretaries, including Secretaries Mat Hancock and Alok Sharma, and Foreign Secretary Raab. We have a very strong, robust relationship.

And you quote those people using Soviet example. I think this is a totally Cold War mentality. We are living in the third decade of the 21st century, but those people still live in the old days when they were fighting cold war. China is not former Soviet Union. I think China and the UK are united by common interests rather than divided by our differences. So I'm very confident about this relationship.

Sackur: All right, Ambassador, we have to end there. But I do thank you very much indeed for joining me on Hardtalk at this difficult time. Liu Xiaoming, thank you very much indeed.

Ambassador: My pleasure.
(LCB) and thus the Ambassador is confronted with the product that his Foreign Ministry has made.  Where one aligns a pandemic response with the supremacy of a system, it is only to be expected that others will push back on the soft underbelly of that alignment--the response itself.  The Ambassador did his best--that Western equation of Chinese to Soviet governance was, is and will be laughable. However, that the Ambassador was reduced to try to explain this evidences both the potency of the analogy and the failures of those within the Central Government that opened the door to this sort of attack.  Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to argue that the failures of the CPC and its state apparatus to engage in their outbound political work to make clear to foreigners what Chinese Marxism is all about, and how it is not a Soviet or European, but perhaps a global, system falls squarely on them.  But that is the least of the problems nicely illuminated by the question and the answer. Principal among them are the dangers that the decision to create that firm alignment between the triumph of the political-economic system and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic puts China in a defensive position.  And that is how the interview ends--with China in a defensive position.  The Ambassador is reduced to listing the people who will take his call, with whom he is friendly.  Those are signs of weakness not strength, especially in an interview to be broadcast to the masses.And that brings us back to the origin stories. Where, for example, China might have gotten ahead of this issue Western style, by creating a national inquiry commission and rounding up the "usual suspects" around which they could have constructed a stronger version of the "state system works not just to solve the problem of pandemic but also to root out corruption and mismanagement" (which would have played better in the West and been harder to effectively counter), they chose to conflate internal and foreign discursive styles in ways that are now providing challenges to Chinese ambitions  beyond its borders. But of course, that was impossible.  And it was impossible because of the discursive anchor that ties Chinese responses--an anchor constructed out of status sensitivities, the dead hand of historical burdens unresolved, and the imperative to align the authority and legitimacy of the state system with what is now condensed as a "timeline" of triumph. The West and its leadership cores have their own problems which will also produce its own challenges to their ambitions, to be sure, but this is a challenge of Chinese origin.

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