10 december 2012

Three jobs in China

Thinking back of my time in China as Head of the Netherlands diplomatic mission , I think mostly of the series of fascinating visits I could make throughout the vast country during my first year-and-a-half.  In a way those years were under the cloud,since a Dutch company had sold submarines to Taiwan.

In that uneasy situation between two countries I was understandably in Beijing not as an Ambassador but as a  “Charge d’Affaires”. But don’t forget to add “ Charge d’affaires ….en pied”,  meaning: ”permanent”, “with full powers”. Quite another level than the  “ad interim”, (=temporarily)  Charge’s when an Ambassador is out of the country for any time. My situation was a rarity in diplomacy. If the composer of the script was to be punished, I can truly say nobody “shot at the pianist” .

In order to seek good counsel in our situation   I sought contact with influential friends in Beijing. But I also visited  provincial vice-governors and mayors all over China. Sometimes the host would say in a friendly somewhat hesitating way:  “You are very welcome with us, but…., ahem,… do we not have a problem with your country”?                                         I used to say then:”Yes, and that is exactly why I come to ask for your help. If you give my Dutch companies a nice project in your blooming province, that may help in turning our political difficulties around”.                                                                                                         “Ah, does it work like that”?  was, with an indulgent smile, the comment of the host. And  from there we proceeded happily to the next room where a  big round table was waiting for the welcoming  dinner. Indeed in those years in China I felt that China was able to deal with national and international problems in an adult and calm manner, true to its best traditions.

When between our two countries the clouds had lifted  and I would leave China as Charge d’Affaires in order to come back a week later (after my oath in the hands of Her Majesty Queen Beatrix) as an Ambassador, China’s Protocol Chief  said: “But you cannot leave without a farewell dinner”. That was a nice occasion. A week later he received me again for a welcoming dinner in the new function. Two dinners of welcome and two  farewell dinners in one single stretch of time is also rather unique. China knows how to use protocol  in order to mark clearly different times and different situations.

From Paris, which was my next diplomatic assignment, together with my Thai spouse (Sirin Phathanothai, with her brother the unique foster children of Prime Minister Zhou En Lai) I came back to China for shorter periods, and recently somewhat  longer periods.

It gives me great inspiration that through  the “family relationship” with Zhou En Lai and also in a new function as Chairman of China Carbon Forum (helping in the field of climate protection)  I can serve in a “third capacity” and keep a linkage with China.    Our old manchu courtyard  in Beijing  gives us for that kind of work the proper platform. Such new work gives also occasion  to reflect on relations between boths heads of the Eurasian continent:  China and Europe.                                                                                                         Both sides by their historic  heritage and their  capabilities are called for an “adult and calm”  way to confront world problems and to approach a common future.

Anton Smitsendonk