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Rudd in Beijing
To be honest, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Mandarin isn’t all that great. But try telling that to the students of Beijing University.
Rudd, 50, made his first trip to China in early April as Australia's head of state. Rudd is an old Beijing hand, having stayed in the Chinese capital for three years in the late 1980s. Not many Chinese, in Beijing or otherwise, had noticed the smiling official from the Australian embassy then. The fact that he could speak fluent Mandarin – in a city where many foreigners are Chinese experts – aroused little interest.
Fast forward 20 years and it is not an exaggeration to say a sizeable segment of China’s 1.3 billion people followed Rudd’s speech at Beijing University on television with rapt attention.
If you want to be picky, you could say that Rudd, while fluent in Mandarin, has yet to master its pronunciation. Mandarin, or Putonghua, has four tones and each tone carries a different meaning. Rudd stumbled in some of them. Tibet is "Xizang" in Putonghua (which literally means "the western place of Buddhist scriptures"), where "zang" takes on the fourth tone. Rudd pronounced "zang" in the first tone, transforming the meaning to "western dirt".
But that was negligible, as far as his audience was concerned. Rudd warmed the undergraduates up with jokes, asked them why they were there (and not studying), and told them the old Chinese saying that the worst thing on earth was a foreigner trying to speak Mandarin. He was cheered continually and given a standing ovation.
It's not that Rudd just happens to be the first world leader in living memory who can rattle off Mandarin as a living language, or that he majored in Chinese in university and has a Chinese as a son-in-law.
What struck many Chinese right at the heart was a word used by Rudd even when he touched on sensitive subjects such as Tibet (still rioting), human rights, and the need for political reform in China (where he quoted a bunch of famous Chinese reformers from Kang Youwei and Hu Shi to Lu Xun, none of them Communist, to prove his point).
Bush had repeatedly said the same things about China (minus the examples). But of course the President of the United States said it in his usual strident manner.
Rudd, on the other hand, used a very ancient Chinese word as the platform on which he delivered his message. "We want to be a 'zengyou' of China," he told the Chinese. 'Zengyou', which literally means 'loyal friend', is a person who would tell you things you may not want to hear for your own good. In the Chinese context, there is almost no higher form of friendship. In just one word, Rudd has est
ablished his right to say unspeakable things to China. And the Chinese welcomed it – if not the content, then at least the context. Four months after taking office, Rudd has laid a sound foundation for Sino-Australia relations. It’d be interesting to see how things go from there.
Who else speaks Mandarin?
Timothy Geithner, the chairman of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve.
He is US President-elect Barack Obama's choice for Treasury Secretary. A year spent in China while he was still in school helped Geithner pick up the language.
Lee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.