Ideas that add up #32

Only under pressure of Western incursions in the nineteenth century did China establish something analogous to a foreign ministry to manage diplomacy as an independent function of government, in 1861 after the defeat in two wars with the Western powers. It was considered a temporary necessity, to be abolished once the immediate crisis subsided. The new ministry was deliberately located in an old and undistinguished building previously used by the Department of Iron Coins, to convey, in the words of the leading Qing Dynasty statesman. Prince Gong, “the hidden meaning that it cannot have a standing equal to that of other traditional government offices, thus preserving the distinction between China and foreign countries.” …

In its imperial role, China offered surrounding foreign peoples impartiality, not equality: it would treat them humanely and compassionately in proportion to their attainment of Chinese culture and their observance of rituals connoting submission to China.

Kissinger in On China

Barbarian management: Kissinger notes that the embryonic ministry’s name was 總理各國事務衙門 Office for the General management of the Affairs of All Nations: “open to the interpretation that China was not engaging in diplomacy with foreign peoples at all, but rather ordering their affairs as part of its universal empire.”

To this day, the PRC’s ministry of foreign affairs has a relatively low status in the bureaucratic hierarchy. At least up until this year’s five-yearly reshuffle (and possibly since then too, I haven’t checked), the MOFA minister hasn’t even been worth a place at the political top table — the 25-seat CCP politburo.

While the world obsesses with China — its rises and falls, its open doors and shut doors, its famines and factories — China obsesses mainly with itself, while expending the minimum of energy on the tiresome and never-ending shenanigans of those pesky barbarians.

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