The Hindu Profiles | On Yang Jiechi and Vignesh Sundareshan

Yang Jiechi | Eye of the tiger

Regardless of who emerges on top following the March 18 talks between top U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska — and whether the first engagement with China under the new Biden administration ends up being a significant milestone in the continuing power tussle between the world’s two biggest powers — there appears to be at least one “big winner”.

“That is Politburo member Yang Jiechi,” wrote Dali Yang, University of Chicago political science professor and an expert on elite Chinese politics, referring to China’s top diplomat. “His lecturing of Americans has been a resounding success with the Chinese press and public,” he observed on Twitter, “and will continue to resonate” in China.

Most people in China who follow the news were likely aware of who Yang Jiechi (pronounced Yaang Ji-ye Ch-uh) is. For several decades, he has been a fixture in China’s diplomacy. Yet if the name might have rung a bell, most would have been hard pressed to recall any details about Mr. Yang, who enjoyed the reputation, among his foreign peers, of being a somewhat colourless bureaucrat. That was until Friday.

In response to the 2-minute opening remarks from his host Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. Yang launched into an unexpected 16-minute speech, going beyond the usual customary short opening introductions made in the presence of the media.

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He said he had been “compelled” to respond to Mr. Blinken, who had raised concerns over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“Well, isn’t this the intention of United States, judging from what — or the way that you have made your opening remarks — that it wants to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength?” he asked. “So was this carefully all planned and was it carefully orchestrated with all the preparations in place? Is that the way that you had hoped to conduct this dialogue? Well, I think we thought too highly of the United States. We thought that the U.S. side will follow the necessary diplomatic protocols. So for China, it was necessary that we made our position clear. So let me say here that, in front of the Chinese side, the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”

These remarks went viral in China, and Mr. Yang was praised for his forthrightness. Some in the Chinese press were drawing comparisons to Mao Zedong’s famous declaration in 1949 that “the Chinese people have stood up”, viewing his comments as laying down a marker in China’s challenge of American dominance.

‘Centre of the stage’

Premature as that may perhaps be, the apparent transformation of Mr. Yang is reflective of the broader evolution of the Chinese foreign policy that he represents, from a cautious, emerging power that stressed a “peaceful rise” as its mantra, to one that believes it is now, as President Xi Jinping put it at the 2017 Communist Party congress, moving to the “centre of the world stage”.

Born in Shanghai in 1950, Mr. Yang studied at Bath University and then the London School of Economics from 1973 to 1975, a time when many of his compatriots were still dealing with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and unable to go to university. After joining the foreign service, he spent much of his diplomatic career dealing with the U.S. where he served in the 1980s, according to his biography on China Vitae. In the late 1980s, he was back in the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, working in the translation and interpretation department.

That was when he became a close friend of the family of George H.W. Bush, for whom he served as host and translator during a visit to Tibet and was given the nickname “Tiger”. “At several junctures over the past two decades, including the aftermath of China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, the man they call Tiger has emerged as a hidden liaison between the Bushes and the Chinese leadership,” the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2000. In 1992, the senior Bush even “welcomed Yang in the White House residential quarters, to which few diplomats have entry,” the paper noted. He returned to the U.S. again in the 1990s and was appointed as China’s Ambassador to Washington in 2001.

Rise to the top

His vast experience in the U.S. paved the way for him to ascend to the top diplomatic posts in the Chinese government. He served as Foreign Minister from 2007 to 2013, followed by four-year term as State Councilor in the Cabinet, a broad equivalent to the National Security Adviser post in other countries. Among his duties as top diplomat was to engage with India as a Special Representative on the border talks, which, by most accounts, made little progress during his tenure.

His career received an unexpected boost in 2017, when Mr. Yang was due to retire. At the Party Congress five years into Mr. Xi’s term, he was promoted to the elite 25-member Politburo, the first diplomat to be given that honour since the former Foreign Minister Qian Qichen 14 years earlier.

“Tiger” Yang’s elevation in 2017 revealed two things: his long experience in dealing with the U.S. deemed him a valuable asset, and more tellingly, it showed he had the ear of Mr. Xi, who also appointed him as Director of a newly set-up Foreign Affairs Commission under the Party’s Central Committee. So even if Mr. Yang is receiving the plaudits in China for his sharp remarks in Alaska, it is clear they most certainly bore the stamp of Mr. Xi — and were a message he wanted to convey to the new administration in Washington.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 8:04:46 PM |

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