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Opinion | "No jokes please, we are Chinese"

(Illustration: Global Times/Liu Rui)

By Philip Yeung, a university teacher


China is the country of Confucius. The Chinese are a morally serious race. Its cross-breeding with socialism gives it a double dose of earnestness. To Western communicators, China is the "Land of the dull, and home of the literal" in Gore Vidal's words. On the official level, China seldom laughs. Chinese diplomats like to say that in foreign affairs, there is no such thing as a small matter. Neither is it a laughing matter.

Paul Keating, witty and sharp-tongued former prime minister of Australia said that China is "at the adolescent phase of its diplomacy." I cannot but agree. Perhaps China should hire Keating to show its diplomats the art of the insult. He once took a swipe at his political opponent calling him "all tip, and no iceberg". In describing Australia's decision to build eight nuclear submarines in an anti-China alliance, he said: "It is like throwing toothpicks at the mountain." This is the kind of colorful and creative use of language that the world wants to hear.

China is facing hostility on all fronts. In this environment, is there still a place for humor in its dialogue with the West?

But what is the alternative? Against in-the-face provocations, the default mode of Chinese diplomats is anger. Except anger is a blunt instrument that is often self-defeating. Wolf warrior diplomacy is a double-edged sword, good for domestic consumption, but bad for external relations. Humor, however, is always regarded as a sign of higher intellect.

Humor may be counterintuitive for straitlaced Chinese officials, but it is in the diplomat's bag of tricks.

A humorous China is an oxymoron. But a nimble-witted or wisecracking China may shock the world out of its anti-China preconceptions. President Xi wants his people to tell China's story. There is no better way than to let laughter carry it. It is civility in communication.

Humor has many benefits. The essence of humor is surprise. It has the power to knock your opponent off-balance. It can also liberate your thinking and nudge you towards a different angle. The serious Chinese like their language literal in English. Their official communication is always scripted and stilted. Worse, it is all too predictable.

Being predictable makes you vulnerable. In TV interview after heated TV interview, Western anchor-persons are lying in wait, ready to ambush their Chinese guests. In the cut-and-thrust of debate on the media, the predictability of their answers make them sitting ducks. Besides, raw anger, no matter how justifiable, often backfires. China should learn to laugh its way out of tight diplomatic corners. Don't take Western trash talk too seriously.

Humor humanizes its practitioner. A witty repartee wins instant admiration, humiliating your opponent without being dragged down to his level. Winston Churchill was a deadly debater. When a member of the opposition was upset at Churchill for dozing off during his speech, he asked "Must you fall asleep?" to which Churchill replied: "I assure you, it is entirely involuntary." The US President Calvin Coolidge was famous for his taciturnity. A society woman went up to him and said "Mr President, I have made a bet with my friend that I can get at least three words out of you. Please help me win the bet." Coolidge eyed the hapless lady and said curtly: "You lose." When Trump insulted Michael Bloomberg for being short, the former mayor deadpanned: "From where I come from, we measure height from the neck up." KO for the big bully.

Lee Hsien Loong, the Singaporean prime minister with his Cambridge education knows a thing or two about the judicious use of humor, often cracking up his audience with his jokes.

If you are blunt or angry, you lack social capital. The educated Chinese are the product of the exam-driven learning that discourages spontaneity. They are trained to give correct, warmed-up answers, using an artificial and charmless form of English.

China needs to train its official representatives in debating, public speaking—and thinking in English. Humor is part of the package. Its business schools should do likewise. The Indians cut a large swathe in Fortune 500 companies as CEO's and politicians in their adopted countries. They are leaving the verbally challenged Chinese in the dust. Language is leadership.

The study of grammar is only skin-deep. And rote learning is toxic. There is a saying in the West: laugh and the world laughs with you. China should try to get the world laughing with her. It is difficult to demonize a smiling face.

Chinese who are unapologetic patriots believe that only science and technology can save their country. China has arrived as a nation of technology with a powerful economy. But the soft art of communication is a largely unplowed field. They can build super-highways, high-speed trains and the Three Gorges Dam. But they can't make foreigners laugh.

Diplomacy is like a boxing ring. You can't put an untrained fighter to face a Mixed Martial Arts pugilist. Diplomatically, China is in an asymmetrical contest. China must learn to bob and weave and feign. Like Bruce Lee did. If China can send its astronauts into space, why can't it train diplomats who can humiliate their opponents with their humor?


The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

Read more articles by Philip Yeung:

Opinion | Is America locating its G spot in geopolitics?

Opinion | Let's Bury a Myth — Western Journalists cannot be Trusted

Opinion | Why Donald Trump hates China

Opinion | Home, at last!


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