The Duck of Minerva

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Feelings in Foreign Affairs

April 10, 2008

Could be my lack of expertise in Chinese diplomatic discourse, but I’ve found myself doing double-takes at the frequency with which Chinese elites have referred to “feelings” in statements to the Western media lately.

Take Gao Xiqing’s interview on 60 Minutes Sunday. Pressed by Leslie Stahl on whether the Chinese should submit to an official code of conduct for sovereign wealth funds, he responds:

“Why do you need a law like that? That law will only hurt feelings. It’s not economic. It doesn’t make sense. Politically it’s stupid.”

Then, on last night’s News Hour, when asked whether the Chinese might retaliate if President Bush boycotts the opening ceremony of the summmer Olympics, Chinese-born retired US Army Major General John Fugh said of the Chinese government:

“I’m not sure they will retaliate, but they’re certainly going to have some very, very bad feelings toward the whole situation if it gets to that stage.”

Then there’s Bjork, who, according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture, “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” when she shouted “Tibet, Tibet” after a concert in Shanghai last month.

What is this a code-word for, I’m wondering?It’s not exactly standard politico-speak in Anglo-phone circles. One strains to imagine President Bush claiming his feelings are hurt at accusations that waterboarding is torture. (English-speaking Google hits for “foreign policy hurt feelings” turn up little of any substance related to current issues in foreign affairs, though there’s a bit of gender stereotyping with respect to certain presidential candidates.) But the concept (humiliation? shame? polite-talk for righteous anger?), translated into English as “hurt feelings,” seems to be a staple of Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, especially when responding to perceived double-standards.

I read it as a pleasant way of saying, don’t be such #*&%ing hypocrites. And this is the best reason for President Bush to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies after all, despite pressure from others. Under Bush, the USG has squandered any right it once had to chide other foreign leaders for human rights abuses. He will be an ineffective ambassador for freedom, and his presence as part of any boycott that might include European governments, as Dan Drezner proposes, would only dilute any influence they would have by associating them with his own hypocrisy. The double standard may even stoke, as Drezner recognizes, the ongoing nationalist backlash against the West within China that will make it harder, not easier, for the Chinese government to continue liberalizing.

Anyone who wants to promote human rights and democracy in China should be embracing events like the Olympics as an opportunity to socialize China into the global moral order. And activists who want to bring pressure on China should not be seeking an ally in a sitting government with a record like ours. Such a strategy will only hurt feelings, and people with hurt feelings often behave badly toward those beneath them.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.