At the height of the 1956 Suez crisis, the wife of the British Prime Minister is supposed to have remarked: “It seems as though the Suez Canal is flowing through my living-room.”
I know how she felt. This past couple of days, the South China Sea has been lapping against my favorite armchair. My wife, you see, is a citizen of the People’s Republic, and there has been (as they say in diplomatic communiqués) a full and frank exchange of views.
Not that there is any cause for alarm. Rosie and I have been married for fifteen years, and all these secondary things have been worked out long since. We know the danger zones. Some of them are fenced off altogether. Some we wander into absent-mindedly in the course of arguing about more practical matters. Others need some controlled venting now and again.
In the interests of that latter, I carefully broached the recent dust-up with China a couple of days in, when the Chinese had already demanded an apology. What did Rosie think of this demand? She: “Of course America should apologize. It’s just a form of words. You know what we Chinese people are like, you have to give us some ‘face’. If Bush gives them some ‘face’, everything will soon be settled.”
I pointed out that in the game of international diplomacy, “face” is a tangible asset for any country, and needs to be husbanded with care. America should worry about its own “face” too. Rosie took this aboard without responding, and I thought I had gotten off Hainan Island alive.
I had better make clear before proceeding that Rosie is not a political person. She grew up in China in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Mao dictatorship was getting tired. Her parents were both Party members, Dad actually an officer in the People’s Liberation Army, a veteran of the Korean War. By the time Rosie reached maturity, though, widespread cynicism had set in among the Chinese population, and people slept through Political Study lectures. When I first knew her, in China in the early 1980s, Rosie made me think of Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
Except where it touched upon her own life she had no interest in Party doctrine … In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they … were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.
This, I have come to understand, needs some modifying. It is true that if you asked Rosie to explain the Labor Theory of Value or describe precisely the difference between a poor peasant and a lower-middle peasant, she would flip into deer-in-the-headlights mode. She does not, in fact, like the Communists, having had a run-in with them herself.
On the other hand she is Chinese, and the notion that any Chinese government could ever do anything wrong in its dealings with the world Beyond the Wall is very difficult for her to grasp. Theirs is not, to put it very mildly indeed, a self-critical culture. (Which is why the deepest humiliation the Communists can impose on any citizen is to force them to write a “self-criticism.”)
Thus, when, a week into the crisis, it looked as thought the U.S. was going to stand firm, I got into a spot of bother with my suggestion that perhaps George W. Bush should counter the Chinese demand for an apology by demanding an apology from them. After all, I pointed out, the U.S. plane was over international waters, and the F-8s must have been flying awfully close for the accident to have happened — close enough to fairly be accused of harrassment, whatever the precise details of the mishap.
Rosie: “Nonsense! China give an apology to America? You’re mad! What was that plane doing so close to our shore? Spying, that’s what! You foreigners think you can just do as you like in China! …” In less time than it takes to hit the MAYDAY button on an EP-3 control panel, we were into the Opium War and the suppression of the Boxers. Dialectical Materialism may have passed undigested through Rosie’s alimentary canal, but the xenophobic stuff went direct into her bloodstream.
It’s OK. In the style of Mao Tse-tung, who was fond of comparing crises in the Party with earthquakes, this is no worse than a 4 on the Richter scale. It certainly doesn’t compare with last August 6, a Sunday, and a day that will live in infamy, when I woke early with the horrible realization that it was our wedding anniversary, crept out of the house, spent a frantic hour trying to find a card store that was open, and got home … too late. Harmony will re-assert itself. I just have to follow the President’s example: be patient, and do some measured grovelling.