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Hurt feelings and old friends

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling aus dem Jahre 2017

To describe the climate between the US and China as freezing is a classic understatement. Currently, nearly nine out of ten US citizens (89 percent) see the People’s Republic as an unfriendly competitor and enemy, but not a partner. That was the finding of a representative online poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which coincided with the opening of the People’s Congress. Pew also used a “temperature gauge” in its survey. For 67 percent, their China feelings had “cooled down”, compared with just 46 percent in 2018. Nearly one in four citizens (24 percent) reported freezing zero degrees, nearly three times more than in 2018.

The emotional temper tantrum seems like a tit-for-tat response to accusations Beijing regularly makes to foreign countries of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people“. (伤害中国人民的感情). With this formula, it lashes out at states, companies, individuals, or institutions of any kind that China’s government feels has stepped on its toes. It is, the Economist suggested, a move by the party to interfere abroad. In the process, the Chinese people are not being consulted about whether they feel offended. Beijing’s foreign ministry and its party media decide by proxy when, how, where, and by whom their “feelings” are hurt.

‘Hurt feelings of Chinese people’ becomes political slogan

In 1959, the People’s Daily first printed the formula as a warning to New Delhi because Indian troops had crossed into Chinese-claimed territory in the Himalayas. David Bandursky of the China Media Project examined 143 instances where the People’s Daily slapped the label of having “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” on foreign countries between 1959 and 2015. Japan was warned 51 times, and the US 35 times. “After 1978, the slogan became an integral part of the party’s political discourse.”

Since Beijing has been more aggressive in representing its interests in foreign policy and flexing its economic muscles, it has happened more often that those so branded feel compelled to make a public apology for fear of sanctions. In 2018, carmaker Mercedes Benz made amends to the Chinese embassy in Berlin after quoting the Dalai Lama (politically outlawed only in China) in a commercial. The Italian luxury brand Dolce&Gabbana (D&G) was ruined by a humorous video showing a Chinese woman eating pizza with chopsticks. Beijing found the commercial deeply discriminatory. D&G had to cancel fashion shows and its China sales fell. The nationalist Global Times triumphed: “Facts show that hurting the national feelings of the Chinese people will be punished by the market, and the country’s 1.3 billion people will decide.”

Mercedes, Dolce&Gabbana, and Ronald Reagan

Nothing has changed in the sweeping accusation for 60 years. Only the number of Chinese suffering from hurt feelings had to be updated after each census. In 1959, it was 670 million people. In August 1980, Xinhua accused then-US President Ronald Reagan of “deeply hurting the feelings of a billion people” by wanting to set up a US government liaison office in Taiwan. Anyone who speaks critically abroad about China’s three T-taboos (Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen) automatically hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.

In 2000, 1.2 billion people were offended after Sweden awarded its Nobel Prize for Literature to Gao Xingjian, a dissident living in France. In 2012, according to Xinhua, Japan hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese when China’s island dispute with Japan came to a head in September 2012 over who owns the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands in the East China Sea.

Own Wikipedia entry

On the list of the hurt feelings are or were Hollywood stars from Richard Gere to Brad Pitt (because of Tibet), singers from Taiwan and K-pop bands like BTS from South Korea, the North American basketball league (NBA), hotel chains or airlines. Wikipedia collected relevant examples from all over the world. The Bertelsmann Foundation explained on a chart how China’s government turned its accusation into “a powerful tool to force foreign institutions to submit to Beijing’s ideological postulates.

In September 2007, Beijing’s sensitivity hit Chancellor Angela Merkel when she met the Dalai Lama in Berlin, “hurting and seriously undermining the feelings of the Chinese people and mutual relations”. However, because Merkel visited China every year thereafter, and never met the Dalai Lama again, she once more became the “lao pengyou”, the “time-honored friend of the Chinese people” (中国人民的老朋友).

Merkel is “time-honored friend of the people”

Being “lao pengyou” is the antithesis of being a feelings trampler. Politicians and business leaders who have visited China at least three times are entitled to it. The exception to the rule was Henry Kissinger, who met all of China’s leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. Because Beijing needed him, Mao and his Premier Zhou Enlai called him “old friend” by their second meeting. Kissinger noted in his book “China” that Beijing “flatters visitors by greeting them as ‘old friends’, making it difficult for them to disagree and engage in confrontation.”

Friendship, Kissinger said, is not seen as a “personal quality” but is forged as “long-term cultural, national or historical bonds”. China’s leadership had retained “a little of the traditional treatment of barbarians in its dealings with foreigners”.

Conversely, it means that the Chinese people’s feelings, so deeply hurt, will heal in an instant once Beijing’s alleged culprit appears useful again. Or won’t arise at all if everyone joins forces to resist the calculated pressure.


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