There exists a vast taxonomy of political gaffes, including everything from verbal and Freudian slips to hot-mic fiascos and literal pratfalls, but few of these are of any lasting consequence. It might be mildly embarrassing for an American president to, say, accidentally mix up the rugby-playing All Blacks and the paramilitary Black and Tans, or to vomit in the lap of his Japanese counterpart during a nasty bout of acute gastroenteritis, but such faux pas, however unfortunate, are hardly meaningful in historical terms. Far more interesting are the notorious Kinsley gaffes, wherein a politician accidentally says what he or she really thinks, and in doing so provides welcome insight into the internal machinations of the political mind.
A paradigmatic example of such an unforced error occurred on April 21, 2023, when the Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, was interviewed on the French television station LCI. Lu, a proponent of muscular so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, responded to a question about the war in Ukraine by casting into doubt the sovereignty of each and every nation that once belonged to the USSR. “The countries of the Soviet Union,” the ambassador frankly declared, “have no effective status in international law because there is no international agreement to recognize their status as sovereign countries.” As for the status of Crimea, which under international law is indisputably part of Ukraine, Lu Shaye posited instead that the peninsula was “Russian at the beginning,” without deigning to elaborate further. The beginning of what? Not the 21st century, surely, so perhaps the 20th century? Or the 19th? The Holocene? Time itself? Only Lu Shaye knows for sure.
The French foreign ministry immediately responded by stressing France’s “full solidarity with all of our allies and partners concerned, who have gained long-awaited independence after decades of [Soviet] oppression,” and then received Lu on April 24 for a meeting that had already been scheduled, thereby obviating the need to formally summon him. The Chinese envoy was informed in no uncertain terms of the “unacceptable nature” of his comments and was told to “confine his public statements to those consistent with the official position of his country.” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, added that “the EU can only assume that these statements do not represent the official position of China,” while a letter signed by some eight European lawmakers urged Catherine Colonna, the French minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, to declare Lu Shaye persona non grata.
In central and eastern Europe, the reaction was positively incandescent. Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, announced that all three Baltic nations would be summoning the relevant Chinese ambassadors or chargés d’affaires and demanding an explanation, while reminding Beijing that the “countries of the Soviet Union,” in Lu’s bizarre formulation, were already sovereign entities before being illegally occupied by the genocidal Soviet regime, and obviously remain so after regaining their political independence. The most incisive response came from Ukraine’s ambassador to France, Vadym Omelchenko, who requested that his Chinese equivalent consider “who owns Vladivostok,” the Russian-held outpost initially settled by the Chinese in 600 AD, and known as Yongmingcheng, the “City of Eternal Light,” at least until it was opportunistically seized by czarist forces during the Second Opium War.
The Chinese embassy in Paris, reeling from a hailstorm of diplomatic protests, wisely distanced itself from Lu Shaye’s novel and decidedly provocative theory of international law, letting it be known that the ambassador’s comments were “not a statement of policy, but an expression of personal views during a televised discussion,” and deleting the transcript of the ambassador’s comments from the ambassadorial website. Mao Ning, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, likewise engaged in damage control, clarifying that “China respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all nations and supports the objectives and principles of the UN Charter,” and making it clear that “China was among the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the nations concerned … The Chinese side respects the status of sovereign nations born after the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
It should come as no surprise that for a diplomat, Lu Shaye has proven anything but tactful over the years. In April of 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was summoned to the French foreign ministry after an article appeared on the website of the Chinese embassy in Paris claiming that “nursing staff of old people’s homes abandoned their posts overnight, collectively deserting, leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease.” Less than a year later, Lu was once again summoned, this time after attacking a French researcher, Antoine Bondaz of the Foundation for Strategic Research, who had complained of Chinese pressure against parliamentarians wishing to visit Taiwan. Lu called Bondaz a “petty thug” and denounced “crazy hyenas” who “dress up in the clothes of researchers and media and furiously attack China.”
Not since 1989, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square atrocities, had a Chinese ambassador been summoned to No. 37 Quai d’Orsay for a dressing down. Lu Shaye has been managing that feat on a more or less yearly basis. During his ignominious stint in Paris, Lu has further sullied what reputation he has left, for example insisting that Uyghurs held in Chinese concentration camps are “not interned” but rather “in educational and vocational training centers.” He has also claimed that Taiwan has “been under Chinese administration since 230 AD,” which is odd, since the island did not come under Chinese imperial control until 1683, only to be ceded to Japan in 1895, and the Chinese Communist regime has never exercised any sovereignty whatsoever there. More ominously, the self-styled wolf warrior has ventured that “I’m sure that as long as they are reeducated, the Taiwanese public will once again become patriots.” And now he has denied the very sovereignty of the 14 states that escaped the former Soviet Union. If anyone is to be considered an “ideological troll,” surely it would be Lu Shaye, China’s diplomatic provocateur extraordinaire.
It is impossible to describe Lu Shaye’s April 21 comments as anything other than risible. The People’s Republic of China recognizes those countries, as its own foreign ministry acknowledges. The United Nations recognizes those countries. The 1991 Belovezha Accords established the “right to self-determination” and “territorial integrity” of formerly Soviet-dominated states, while declaring the Soviet Union itself defunct “as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality.” While there is no basis in theory or reality for the Chinese ambassador’s statements, they were no mere slip of the tongue and must be taken seriously, as European diplomats thankfully have. We might also note that the Russian politico-media complex has also taken the statements seriously, with the odious propagandist Yaakov Kedmi, in an appearance on a Rossiya 1 television program, following suit by referring to Estonia as a “pimple on the body of Europe which for some reason considers itself a state. Estonia has never been a state, there has never been a state of Estonia in history, ever.” (The 1920 Treaty of Tartu, signed between the Republic of Estonia and Soviet Russia after the latter’s decisive defeat in the Estonian War of Independence, would alone suggest otherwise.) Lu Shaye’s historically illiterate comments have served as chum for an increasingly bloodthirsty, revanchist Russian Federation, and for that reason should be rejected forcefully.
The historical revisionism evident in the Chinese ambassador’s botched interview does at least help to illuminate the Chinese communist worldview. Sam Crane, who teaches contemporary Chinese politics and ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, wrote in reaction to Lu’s gaffe that “the more I think about this the more I think he is saying out loud what Xi says privately. Anxiety about the dissolution of the Soviet Union and discourse about Gorby [Mikhail Gorbachev] not being ‘man enough’ to keep it together, could easily slip into: those countries don’t really exist.” Xi Jinping’s regime has a view of history that diverges completely from the received wisdom prevalent in the West. “To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else,” Xi has maintained, “is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the party’s organizations on all levels.” The lesson to be learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union is not that captive nations, long oppressed and subjected to physical and cultural genocide, will seek to escape from the deadly clutches of their age-old tormentors at the first possible moment. Instead, Xi has argued, the “lesson from the collapse of the Soviet Union” is that “in the Soviet Union, where the military was depoliticized, separated from the party and nationalized, the party was disarmed. When the country came to a crisis point, a big party was gone just like that. Proportionally, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.” More centralization, more despotism, more oppression, more surveillance — that is how the soi-disant wolf warriors hope to avoid the fate of their socialist forebears.
The Soviet Union, as Xi Jinping knows all too well, was a culturally diverse empire spread out over 22 million square kilometers, comprised of 128 ethnic groups practicing Russian, Georgian, Armenian Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and various pagan faiths, and speaking more than 200 languages and dialects. Holding all of that together was bound to be a Herculean task. Present-day China happens to be similarly situated. There are 56 recognized ethnic groups in China, though in reality there are more like 200, and more than 300 languages are spoken throughout the Chinese mainland. Geographically speaking, a China without Xinjiang (East Turkestan), the Xizang Autonomous Region (Bod or Tibet), the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Southern Mongolia), and Dōngběi (Inner Manchuria) — one reduced to the core known as “China Proper” — would be a geopolitical rump state. Therefore it is incumbent on the communist regime to maintain control of “Outer China” through a combination of genocide and democide, the establishment of concentration and reeducation camps, Sinicization, forced ethnic assimilation, Han colonization, and the repression of cultural practices and alleged xie jiao (heterodox and illegal religions). This ruthless orgy of subjugation and exploitation has but one goal: to avoid the fate of the quondam Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin once referred to the collapse of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Very few sane people actually believe this, but Lu Shaye must be one of them, if he is willing to question the very existence of the nations that attained their freedom as a consequence of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping and his apparatchiks may view criticism of Lenin, Stalin, and the grotesque Soviet experiment as “historic nihilism,” but is there any better example of historical nihilism, of historically-illiterate negationism, than Lu Shaye’s outlandish comments of April 21, 2023? Yet, in the end, it is better for such views to be expressed in the open, rather than just whispered in Beijing’s halls of power. This way, we can better understand the ludicrous ideology that underpins communist China, an ideology wholly at odds with international law and human nature.
The best place to come to grips with the current state of unfree China is probably the Daoist temple of Sanguan, in Chahe Town, located in the province of Hubei. It was there, in 2019, that the temple manager was forced to renovate the structure so that it looks, in the words of Bitter Winter’s Cai Congxin, “more like a Party propaganda agency, both inside and outside.” Bodhisattva sculptures and incense burners were covered up with wooden boards that were then decorated with portraits of Chairman Mao and Xi Jinping. A signboard that once read “Chanting Hall” now advertises a rather spartan “Elderly Entertainment Room” boasting a couple of mahjong tables with some uncomfortable-looking stools. The dreary slogan “The Party is in my heart” was slapped up on the walls of the former temple, which is now called the History Museum of Yongxing Village. Other sites have suffered equally ignominious fates, as Buddhist and Daoist temples all over China are declared “illegal constructions that negatively affected the town’s beauty,” and replaced with kitschy sculptures of the murderous Chairman Mao and his ideological offspring.
But it is all just a Potemkin Village. China’s real history, traditions, and faith still lurk beneath the wooden planks, layers of whitewash, and mind-numbing communist mantras. China may represent the world’s oldest continuous civilization, but the Chinese Communist Party is an arriviste on the world stage, its rule dating back only to 1949. Mao Zedong and his successors may have secured unrivaled power by dint of genocide, terror, and all-pervading surveillance carried out on a scale unknown in human history, but the ongoing obsession with the collapse of the Soviet Union speaks volumes about the Chinese regime’s deep-seated anxieties. There may come a day when the people of East Turkestan, Tibet, Southern Mongolia, and elsewhere are freed from communist domination, and are able to pursue their national destinies, their cultural practices, and their ancestral faiths without risk of devastating reprisal, just as the peoples who once languished under Soviet domination now can.
Maybe this is far-fetched. A similar prospect might have seemed far-fetched to a Hungarian in 1956, a Czech in 1968, a Pole in 1980, or a Ukrainian in 1986, and yet here we are. When it happens, the Chinese government can hardly object, for we know that it “respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all nations,” even nascent ones. More to the point, the regions of Outer China were independent Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Manchurian polities “at the beginning,” to borrow the phrase Lu Shaye employed in his recent gaffe-filled appearance on French television. May those pregnant words come to haunt the autocratic wolf warriors of the world someday.
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