IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Friday, June 10, 2011

Long Term Thinking

Chinese leader Zhou Enlai famously said, when asked of the impact of the French Revolution, that it was “too early to say.” Only he didn’t, reports the Financial Times.

Zhou’s saying, a “frequently deployed cliché," is often “used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.”

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.”

. . . .Zhou’s cryptic caution also reflected the murderous political climate in Beijing at the time, and the premier would not have risked passing judgment on the radical French Maoists involved in the Paris riots.