Fu Ying was born in 1953 in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, an “autonomous region” of China. Her parents were bilingual, speaking Mandarin and Mongolian. Her father wrote poetry. She can, she tells me, still remember the day that a tall, ethnically Chinese man arrived at the family home to take her father away. It was 1967 and the height of the Cultural Revolution, the bloody chaos unleashed by Mao to purge the party and consolidate power.
“The [tall] man looked into my eyes and said, ‘Democracy is great. Do you know what is democracy?’ I shook my head; I didn’t know. And he said, ‘That’s the change of history. You will be swept away by the change of history.’” (Democracy, during the Cultural Revolution, was equivalent to anarchy. No wonder, I muse to myself, it does not carry the same positive connotations in China as in the west.)
The waiter arrives with our steamed sea bass wrapped in baby spinach. We agree that the fish tastes as good as it looks before I turn to the vexing question of China’s relationship with the rest of the world. How should the west accommodate Chinese power, and why does the scope for mutual misunderstanding seem greater than ever? Madam Fu weighs her answers carefully. “You have your standard [in the west] and you use that standard to measure China, and every time you find China does not fit that standard. But China is never going to, is it? China has such a long history of its own, the only continuous culture in 5,000 years. But it also has about 200 years of a very sad history, with foreign occupations. That hurt China. That’s why the Chinese remember the suffering more than the victories. China has a strong sense of crisis.”
Beyond what I take to be the implied reference to the brutal Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 lies a gut Chinese hostility to being lectured by anyone, whether on human rights, an artificially undervalued currency, the environment or the scramble for raw materials in Africa needed to power the Chinese economy. “There is this frustration about not being understood, not being accepted,” says Madam Fu, who compares different political systems to different types of roof which cannot be imposed willy-nilly on different types of buildings.
The metaphor is seductive but what about universal values, such as freedom of expression, or, more concretely, the controversy over Google, which has just threatened to pull out of China on the grounds that the giant internet group was being both censored and targeted by cyber-hackers? The ambassador seems slightly flustered. “I don’t know the inside story. I don’t know exactly what happened … I don’t think it’s a clear picture.”
But she soon recovers her poise, noting pointedly that Google apologised last year to Beijing for allowing offensive material on its site (even though the pressure from Beijing that elicited this apology was widely seen in the west as a pretext for renewing state censorship).
But China is also the coming global power. Does China wish to replace the US as the world’s hegemon? “Deng Xiaoping said China will never be a hegemon. If one day, China becomes one, the world will stand up against China. That is very deep in our hearts. Every diplomat knows that.