Thoughts on Sino-French Relations from “the Time of Distrust” to Today

One of the more exciting things I get to do as a young academic is travel to the Foreign Ministry Archives in Beijing, there to scout out new sources on China’s relations with the world in previous decades.  And what could be more interesting?  In terms of people-to-people relations, or political/military conflicts, China’s history offers a panorama of change and continuities.

So, somewhat more than other folks, I have a chance to discern a few themes and patterns of change.

For instance, how and when did the Tibet issue arrive the forefront of European consciousness about China?  Was it 1989?  Certainly few Europeans seemed to care about Tibet in the early years of the PRC, in the period when the CCP was consolidating its control over the Himalayan Plateau.

For example: I ran across a very interesting document in the archives yesterday from the PRC in 1952, describing the numbers of foreigners in Tibet.  There were more Swiss than any other nationality, just a handful of French and Germans, hardly enough to constitute a core of any kind of “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”  The Chinese were far more worried about the Indians, and remain so, when it comes to Tibet, and in the 1950s, to my knowledge, no European countries were actively aiding the Tibetan resistance movement, much less doing so with anywhere near the arms and funds flowing out of Washington into the exile movement and into Tibet itself.  [See “Orphans of the Cold War” for more, although Liu Xiaoyuan’s ongoing work on this, along with Case Western Reserve University’s Melvyn Goldstein’s even-handed and jaw-droppingly trilingual scholarship, is likely to provide the true standard for decades to come.]

Here is the relevant document I found; it is a scrawled and scarred thing:

PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Beijing, Document # 105-00233-02, 西藏和平解放后英国,法国,印度,德国人在西藏边界活动情况 [Xizang heping jiefang hou Yingguo, Faguo, Yindu, Deguo ren zai Xizang bianjie huodong qingkuang / “Situation of Activities of British, French, Indians, and German people inside the borders of Tibet after Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation”], 1952 [undated]- 31 May 1953, 8 pages.

In the warming trend of the mid-late 1950s with France, even though the French had nothing to lose, as relations had yet to be achieved, no French Prime Minister or President stood up to denounce Chinese “repression” in Tibet.  On the other hand, it seemed, starting in 1955, French leaders were seeking to remove any obstacle they could to reaching the Chinese market.  That the Dalai Lama himself was in Beijing and cooperating with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in those years seems to have conviently forgotten by the Tibetan indepdence movement as well, so no harm done.

I should add as a caveat that I have yet to investigate the 1959 Tibet uprising as it was reflected in the French media or among French politicians interested in China.  But I think the relevance of such an examination – and the need for an earnest look at the origins of the Tibet problem so far as the French public is concerned – is obvious, or will be by the end of this essay.

I think that one unintended consequence of China’s massive rise as an economic powerhouse is that sympathy for China among the French left has eroded completely.  Does any self-respecting French communist, much less a reader of the (quite-well written) leftist daily papers like L’Humanite or Liberation really have hope for socialism in China?  In the 1950s and 1960s, some French saw China as a major source of revoutionary theory and socialist creativity.  (On the other hand, French correspondent Robert Guillain coined the decidedly unfriendly term “army of blue ants” to describe how Mao was organizing society.)  During the Cultural Revolution, a French film studio even produced “Red Guards Occupy Paris” in a type of praise for student activism.  Today, in the aftermath of Tiananmen’s disappointing fussilades, the French left appears to have divested itself permanently from association from a People’s Republic with whose agenda it has little in common.  To them, the combination of economic growth with political repression is, simply, repugnant.  Contrast this attitude again with the enthusiastic, even euphoric, depictions of China offered up in Simone de Beauvoir’s hefty travel memoir, The Long March, where she describes her six weeks in China in late 1955 as a kind of life-changing and pulsating experience of a future utopia.

(De Beauvoir validates these sentiments in 1955 in one of her many fascinating love letters to the pugilistic American writer, Nelson Algren.  Yet Algren appeared to be as indifferent to her suprisingly Anglophone charms as he was to the tug of the PRC!  Chicago was this man’s haunt, not the Left Bank.  But we can never really know how he felt about the famous French feminist author until his family allows his letters to de Beauvoir to be published, which up until now they have strictly forbidden.  Yes, she was writing him all kinds of precious sentences like “Multiply the number of times you have said ‘yes’ today by 10,874 and that is the number of kisses I will give you”; but who knows what he wrote in return?  Maybe he waited weeks, and then shot back little telegraphs that said “Whatever, Simone, I’m trying to work on some projects, yes whatever about your friends in Paris; no, I don’t have that dude’s address that you met at the party…” but she kept going because she was a creature aflame with love for her own broad-shouldered version of die ferne Geliebte…Truly!  Without having his letters available, anything is possible!  I think de Beauvoir clearly relished writing the letters anyway, both as an opporunity to work her mind and to open up her heart to a passionate someone whose work she admired but with whom she could never really live.  But I digress…)

Returning to the point: what is China’s natural “constituency” inside the French republic, and what is the connection of the Tibet issue to these groups?  The French insistence on the rights of man (le droit de l’homme) without precondition seems to be a major sticking point.  One will find few cobbled-together (and foundationally weak) explanations among the French for Chinese conditions as inherently exceptional to accepting the notion of univeral human rights.

And French ownership of these concepts and insistence on them also seems to have been strengthened somewhat by changes in American behavior since 2001.  Within the American political context, the impacts of 9/11 are often debated and “the American image in the Islamic world” is a poorly understood but endlessly debated subject.  Witness Obama’s address in Cairo.  Do you think we will ever see an American president similarly dissect “the American image in China” or, perhaps more pressing still, “the image of the United States in the Democractic People’s Republic of Korea”?  Is it really so much more vital for the United States to be loved, or at least tolerated, in the Islamic world than in East Asia?

Ongoing fallout over the Bush administration doctrines of torture, detainee abuse, not to mention launching preventative wars, has not simply ceded American authority over human rights issues, it has ceded that authority to Europe.  (In general, the laws of science might hold here; American human rights energy is not simply dissapated, it simply appears elsewhere in another [French or German] guise.)  As I have noted in an earlier blog post, the Europeans remain a bit self-conscious about taking the lead in critiquing China, fearing disruption to their relations with the PRC.  Yet the German politician whose editorial I read and translated on this blog also noted Germany’s complicity with American torture and rendition programs, and that as often as the U.S. is criticized, Europeans are often lumped in with the U.S.  Last February, while spending a week researching at the Biblioteque national Francais and exploring things Chinese in Paris, I spent a couple of hours at the YouFeng bookstore on the rue de Prince.  There I met an intelligent international environmental lawyer (is there any other kind?) who then regaled me with multiple tales of his litigious voyages to China and Japan over some tempura and sushi. According to my friend, the French protested violations of human rights in Tibet on principle alone.  “Even if it changes nothing, the French feel they have to do it,” he stated emphatically, darkening a shrimp with wasabi glaze as he spoke.  Switching voice, he stated: “If we don’t do it, who is going to?”

And yet, being imperfect promulgators of a universal human rights, the French and the German governments are so reluctant of late to criticize China for anything!  The wicked aufschwung of student nationalism in he PRC has already proven harmful to French interests in China; no one wants to see another Carrafour boycott, or worse still, something further reaching where French cosmetic and fashion products, but more importantly, industrial contracts such as high-speed trains and Airbus orders, are cancelled due to political pressures.  Germany has avoided talk of being boycotted by Chinese superpatriots, but has quite a bit to lose if political temperatures flare.

As it so happens, I am writing this post on the top floor of an immense mega-mall north of Beijing’s fifth-ring road; as I walked past the entrance to the Carrefour downstairs, I asked my student friend if anything had transpired here last spring during the hubbub in Paris.  “Yes,” he said, “some bloggers showed up with some signs and took some pictures,” laughing nervously to indicate both the ineffectiveness of the gesture but also his knowledge that this store was indeed French, and therefore a place that wasn’t quite right with everybody in his demographic.

Finally, why does this matter to me?  Because I am interested in Chinese nationalism and its targets, and, according to my reading of the Chinese press and observation of the global situation, Chinese youth and BBS boards seem much more focused right now on North Korea and France than virtually any other countries.  The US is relegated to a lesser country because of its economic problems, Obama is less polarizing than Bush, Hillary Clinton refused to wade into some mosh pit of human rights critiques when she came to China in the spring, and Sino-US relations seem to be largely stable, though far from problem-free.  (The Taiwan issue, related deeply to US-China relations, has not been by any means front and center, unless you count a Starbucks Coffee website error that put Taiwan under “country” on a drop-down menu where one could buy coffee cups.  But their stores are full here nevertheless.)  By contrast, the Dalai Lama has been flirting with the French, and wounds are still a bit raw from spring 2008 and Sarkozy’s Olympic snub, while in early 2009 the flurry over the auction of Chinese antiquities at Christie’s similarly raised temperatures in China.  Only since early April 2009 have things settled down in Sino-French relations, and then the Dalai Lama’s visit to Paris earlier this month unsettled things somewhat further.

The other country that Chinese appear to be paying most attention to these days is North Korea, but that is a subject for another post or three.

Relevant Citation:

Marc Epstein, “Paris-Peking: Chinese Supplication; To Put an End to the Bad Terms Between the Two States over the Subject of Tibet, France appears to be ready to do anything.  But Will it also abandon its principles?” (in French) L’Express, 9 April 2009, p. 44.


  1. Dear Adam,
    I was very interested to read your piece on Sino-French relations – and specifically interested to read that you’ve been using the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives. I am writing a book on Western residents in China during the Mao era – including diplomats and journalists. I’ve used both the British and French diplomatic archives- but not yet the Chinese FM archives. Do you know whether there is a catalogue (like the British diplomatic archives) that one can consult before actually going to the archives? Or any other sort of pre-arrival guide?
    Perhaps you could email me at b.j.hooper[at]
    Many thanks,
    Beverley Hooper
    Professor Emeritus of Chinese Studies
    University of Sheffield, UK

    1. Beverly,

      Regarding the Foreign Ministry Archives, there are no published guides that one can consult; there is only the electronic and relatively-easy-to-navigate catalogue at the archive itself and a shop-copied print version that one can consult at the desk. But this hard copy of what’s in the databases (since all documents are delivered for viewing via pdf., one does not get pulled boxes and the party historians occasionally redact on the electronic copy) is something best reserved for a long break or if one needs to wait around in the archive for copies to emerge. In other words, it is sad that this printed guide is not available beyond the 7th floor of the Foreign Ministry annex.

      Thus it is important for interested researchers like ourselves to share as many citations as we can. I will plug through my MFA database since I am quite sure I have some relevant citations and/or document summaries you might use at the very least as a starting point.

      Photocopies are expensive (5 yuan per page) and often quite restricted. The archivist will allow you to look at all the documents in the catalogue, but will frequently deny print requests for anything with Zhou Enlai’s handwriting (and there is a lot of that strewn about, amazingly he appears to have had his hands on everything) or — and here is the frustration — any other state ministry even if the correspondence is MFA-generated. Thus all kinds of good stuff from the Cultural Ministry or the Dongbei Waishichu (lots of Waishichu files, good for your topic certainly) has to be handcopied or rapidly summarized in the archive itself.

      In the meantime for your topic, I hope you will consider or have already become familiar with my colleague Sidney Rittenberg; his memoir is a decent overview of the culture of CCP-aligned Westerners in the latter half of the 1950s, and he remains quite active as a consultant in the Seattle area.

      I also have some students at Pacific Lutheran University who might be interested in the Anna Louise Strong papers at the University of Washington who might be convinced to further track down some leads on your behalf regarding the interaction of foreigners with CCP political culture in Beijing in the 1950s. As I recall there is a small amount of related material in those papers, and next month I will again be surrounded by history majors who might jump at the chance to find something specific for a distinguished scholar in the UK.

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