When we arrived in Beijing on August 30, 2011, the first thing I noticed was that the city seemed trapped in a perpetual gloom: little did I realize that over the next several days not once would I actually see the sun or blue skies. The second thing I noticed was that when we arrived in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, big flakes were falling from the sky. Was it snow? It turned out to be big flakes of ash. Welcome to the People’s Republic of China, where Great Nation Status was coming at a heavy, but relentless, price.Prior to leaving Manila, the National Security Agency had solemnly warned everyone going to avoid using the Internet, to refrain from sending sensitive information by SMS, to avoid “honey traps,” to recognize many Chinese were learning Filipino, and to reformat all electronic devices upon returning. They meant well, of course, in a John Le Carré sort of way (fear of “honey traps” apparently dating back to 1960s lore when President Sukarno of Indonesia was allegedly plied with lady companions and the ensuing people-to-people exchanges filmed by the Chinese authorities). But the result was to foster a sense of unease that permeated the entire visit.
Still, the State Guesthouse complex was fascinating, perhaps the experience being made even more vivid by members of the delegation wondering if every lamppost along its winding paths and dotting the perimeter of its water features was a concealed listening device. The staff were solemn, brisk, and accommodating. A member of the cabinet expressed a desire for “orange juice with ice” and was rewarded—every morning, like clockwork—with a steely “You must enjoy our Socialist fruit product!” look, and then presented with a piping hot glass of juice. Nothing to do but smile, nod, and drink—para sa bayan.
The next day, we were whisked away to the main ceremonial event—the welcoming ceremonies, bilateral meeting, and state dinner at the Great Hall of the People, which looms over the western edge of Tiananmen Square as a gigantic gray example of Stalinist architecture with Chinese characteristics.
As the National People’s Congress website of the People’s Republic of China solemnly tells us, it was built in 10 months and since 1959, has been “the important venue for the Party and the state affairs and diplomatic activities.” A structure that, “In the past four decades, it has been renovated for several times and more bright wisdom and creativeness have been contributed to it each time. While maintaining its peculiar style, the designers have added artistic charm characteristic of the vitality of the times to this structure, which can aptly manifest the brilliant achievements made in economic and cultural construction of the People’s Republic.”
When you climb its grey steps, you feel like an ant, and with your fellow ants you are ushered into cold, marble halls where the Chinese staff silently glide around gesturing at other hallways that we clack, clack, clacked through. I understand that when Hitler had his Reichschancellery built, he insisted on long corridors with highly polished marble floors, to ensure diplomats would be nervous wrecks, having nearly slipped to death several times before finally reaching his office. Beijing seems to have hit upon the same design theory independently.
Artistic charm, of course, is relative; but what is certain is that it is an effective stage for communicating the vitality of the times—whether in 2011, when I was part of then-President Aquino’s official delegation or in 2016, as a new set of Filipino officials find themselves scampering up the Great Hall’s steps, to be ushered into The Presence of the current Lord of Ten Thousand Years, one of the old titles of the emperors and still as good a way as any to understand why China considers itself the Middle Kingdom—the hub of the universe. Part of the process of building up anticipation is to sequester officials in “holding rooms,” where they mill around, nervously, waiting for the ceremonies to begin.
A feature of the Great Hall of the people is a set of enormous—instead of gigantic—function rooms that are decorated in styles that symbolize different parts of China. We ended up in a room embellished with Islamic architectural details, and what could have been a giant mural of anywhere from the steppes of Russia to the mountains of Afghanistan. The furniture was oversized, reinforcing your ant-like status. Then we were whisked to a properly gigantic hall where state honors would be rendered—the playing of anthems, reviewing the honor guard—prior to the meeting between the two leaders and the banquet.
In December 1969, Pete Lacaba painted this delightful word portrait of Vice-President Fernando Lopez during the inaugural ceremonies: “Lopez couldn’t keep still. He scratched his nape, scratched his crotch, scratched his ears, picked his nose, rubbed his fingernails, folded his arms, dropped them to his sides, held his hands together before him, dropped them to his sides, held his hands together behind him, dropped them to his sides, stared morosely around, scowled, tried to hide his scowl by puckering his lips, and probably wished he were splashing around in his swimming pool. He was at least very human, which made him rather endearing.”
That, in a nutshell, describes perfectly the behavior of nine out of 10 Filipino officials in any formal setting. I find it a highly instructive contrast between how we behave in comparison to Chinese officials. We slouched, we gossiped, we fidgeted with our bags, one Filipino diplomat conducted a survey of people’s ears and what they revealed about that person, and all the while the Chinese officials betrayed no emotion, made no noise, gestured when necessary (stand here, not there) and glided, glided, glided when movement was necessary.
Then the honor guard began marching in. The Secretary of National Defense who obviously had a keen—and professional—eye for such things, noted that every soldier was six feet tall and every soldier, sailor, and airman was of identical height. (I noticed that this year, when the red carpet was rolled out, the honor guard was much larger, and the welcoming ceremonies held outside and thus, far grander, than in 2011: we had, it seems, received the budget welcome.) The ceremonies concluded, we were then ushered into the Fujian Room for the meeting between the two presidents.
Here I am craning my neck as the two leaders engage each other
The first thing I noticed was the excellent posture of the Chinese side, from Hu Jintao down to the lowliest official in attendance. The second was that facial expressions were suppressed to Poker championship levels. The third was the absolute attention to detail, such as the “State Banquet Beverage” in front of every seat (bottled water, in case you were wondering). The Socialist rigor of things on the Chinese side was in marked contrast to our side, except for President Aquino who can hold his own in any formality competition.
Let me illustrate this difference. As the two leaders went over the agenda, I noticed that one official at the far end of the table on the Chinese side, seemed to have decided something had been said that was of interest. He scribbled on a pad, smoothly tore off the page, discreetly folded it, and almost imperceptibly slid it over with his pinky finger to the official to his left, who then slid it from his right hand to his left, then on to the next, and so forth until it made its slow, but deliberate and almost unnoticeable way to President Hu. By this time the paper had magically unfolded and Hu—in midsentence, mind you—glanced down at it, slid it to one side, and a few seconds later said something that I assume was what was suggested, because the official from whom the paper had originated closed both his eyes for a brief moment with an air of triumph.
In contrast we Fiipinos rustle, nudge, wink, go psst!, nudge some more, whisper, smile, put on a gloating expression—look, important paper coming through! I helped make it happen!—whisper some more, rustle some more, and tap people on the shoulder: which is how notes would end up going back and forth on our side. We certainly do things with more joie de vivre, but something has to be said for the Borg-like way Chinese officialdom does things.
Upon the conclusion of the meeting, there was an interval of one-on-one communication between the two leaders as the Chinese glided, and we, galloping like a herd, proceeded to the banquet hall, making small talk as dishes were solemnly presented and everyone tried not to drop anything from the chopsticks. The evening ended with an eerie wailing accompanied by the plucking of a lot of strings that concluded the musical numbers portion. At first I wondered if it was some sort of tribal song from the country’s more remote regions, until I consulted the program and saw that it was “Anak,” by Freddie Aguilar. It did not sound like the song at all, the whole thing seeming to be performed in an entirely different key. But such gestures are warmly received and makes for interesting conversation afterwards.
There would be two more meetings that help illustrate the Chinese way of doing things, which is probably being experienced by the Philippine delegation this year. Meetings of heads of state are highly ritualized affairs, the topics for discussion having been thoroughly vetted and okayed by both sides long before the actual meeting. It enables leaders to take the measure of each other and what impromptu opportunities for diplomacy present themselves are manageably brief (but potentially very effective). Other meetings with other officials provide ways for problems to be discussed without either side losing face. If meeting President Hu communicated friendship and respect, then the meetings that followed over the next day or so were more about problem solving. And here, you could see China using the old-fashioned good cop, bad cop, routine.
I think it was in his office—but it might have been elsewhere—that the President met Wu Bangguo, the Chairman and Party secretary of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. This is not the time or place to thoroughly go into how China’s government is set up, but essentially protocol-wise he was akin to our Speaker of the House but also mattered because he was a grand personage in the Chinese Communist Party. His role was to be, not necessarily the bad cop, but to lay down the Chinese line about a project called Northrail.
Some background. The Northrail plan in 2003 called for an initial $431 million outlay, with a state company called Sinomach to do the construction. China’s EximBank signed a loan agreement in 2004 to finance $400 million. Construction began in 2004, but produced only one out of the projected 80 kilometers of tracks, and it turned out the tracks were meant for low and not high-speed trains the Philippines wanted. Instead, after the disbursal of about $185 million, our Supreme Court ruled that the project was not a government-to-government agreement, essentially invalidating the contract, which had not been awarded via competitive bidding as required by law. Northrail then notified Sinomach of its inability to carry out the agreement, prompting EximBank to declare a default event. Thus, a further tranche of $500 million was never disbursed.
President Hu not only had a poker face, with what seemed to be lacquered hair, an immaculately tailored suit, but also, an air of lofty, Mandarin imperturbability. In contrast, Chairman Wu was wiry, looked weatherbeaten, had discolored teeth, slouched in his chair, and spoke loudly with emphatic hand gestures. A true Son of the People. He said he had gone to Manila in 2003 to organize the financing for Northrail. Now, something ought to be done, don’t you think? The point having been made, smooth expressions of wholeheartedly desiring to work together to resolve things were made. And then we were whisked off to the next meeting.
Again, additional background. Why the keen interest in Sinomach on the part of the Chairman? His own role as a high official made Chairman Wu the most plausible person to push for an accommodation by the Philippines. But here’s something more, that has occurred me only as I was writing this piece. The company’s website says “With approval of the State Council, China National Machinery Industry Corporation (SINOMACH) was established in January 1997. SINO-MACH is a large scale, state-owned enterprise group under the supervision of the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.”
The person who presides over the State Council is the premier. And he was the person with whom the Philippine delegation was scheduled to meet last, among the high personages of the government.
In the Zhongnanhai, that walled-off collection of lakes and grey stone buildings where the nomenklatura works, Premier Wen Jiabao glided into the The Hall of Purple Light (Ziguang Ge), where he and our president sat on those oversized, overstuffed armchairs we see in official Chinese pictures, a riot of writhing gilded dragons on a black lacquered screen behind them. The Premier was like his president, only more pink in terms of complexion, but with the same kind of unreadable steel-spectacled look but with a tinier tendency to smile more. Essentially, a desire for Northrail to be attended to was among the things mentioned, but without belaboring the point—which had already been clearly made in the prior meeting anyway.
The aftermath came in 2012, when the Scarborough Shoal crisis led to the Export-Import Bank of China (China EximBank) calling in the loan that was meant to fund a rail line to Clark International Airport. A lump sum of $184 million was demanded but the Department of Finance managed to negotiate a payment period of two years, ending in 2014, consisting of four equal payments of $46 million to ChinaExim Bank representing “preparation costs for the project such as right-of-way and other land acquisition expenses.” President Aquino in 2015 recalled that “The drawdowns from this loan were demanded very, very early that potentially could have led us to a cross-default.”
But that all lay in the future. The Premier and our President shook hands. A couple more days of travel lay ahead; but it seemed all was friendly, and all was well. Someone had noticed, however, that on the day the state visit officially started, a strong editorial had appeared in one of the government’s English-language papers, condemning, in no uncertain terms, the Philippine position on what we call the West Philippine Sea. It was a sign of things to come.
How different the news emerging from Beijing seems today. Where once Filipino officials entered the dragon, facing a careful and subtle synchronization of flattery and pressure, the past few days has been a dragon dance of celebration. Xi Xinping has been widely described as the strongest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, advocating the “China dream” to restore the Middle Kingdom to its imperial grandeur.
Fittingly, he has been photographed not only playing host to a Filipino president, but radiating the kind of contentment the emperors of old felt when inferior chieftains kowtowed before the Lord of Ten Thousand Years.