Why George Bush should study Mandarin

Just look at Kevin Rudd, the rising star of Australia's Labor Party. He knows how to talk the Chinese talk

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 7, 2007 1:03AM (UTC)
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Given China's multitudinous public relations problems at the moment -- toxic toys, poison pet food, drowned coal miners, environmental armageddon -- you'd think George Bush would have had a least a shot at looking good in comparison to Hu Jintao, when 21 world leaders met this week in Australia at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

Not according to the Financial Times:


Hu Jintao, China's president, stole the limelight at the gathering of Pacific Rim leaders in Sydney on Thursday, upstaging George W. Bush with a flurry of political and trade initiatives designed to woo regional powers....

The Chinese leader was the first foreign leader to arrive in Australia for the meeting, visiting resource-rich Western Australia, the capital Canberra and a sheep farm before arriving in Sydney with a large state business entourage.

Mr Bush, by contrast, will leave the summit meeting of 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation leaders a day early to return to Washington to deal with Iraq.

Mr Hu's high profile in Sydney is a replay of regional meetings in Asia in recent years, in which a growing and activist China has overshadowed a U.S. distracted by the Middle East.

The Financial Times goes on to report that Bush "bristled" when reporters suggested that China was dominating the summit.

Poor guy. You really can't buy a break when you are unfavorably compared to the leader of a Communist Party that ruthlessly quashes dissent and allows zero democracy. And yet maybe the real problem isn't Iraq, but Bush's appalling inability to speak Mandarin.

Consider, for example, the up-and-coming leader of Australia's Labor Party, Kevin Rudd. Once thought to be too bright to succeed in Australian politics (his fellow politicians used to call him, unflatteringly, "Harry Potter"), Rudd is fluent in Mandarin and majored in Chinese history while an undergraduate at Australian National University. The Sydney Morning Herald reports, somewhat gushingly, that Rudd flabbergasted all in attendance at a state lunch this week when he welcomed Hu Jintao to Australia with several minutes of "flawless" Mandarin -- "a stunning piece of linguistic one-upmanship." (Thanks to the International Political Economy Zone blog for the link.)


There was an almost audible intake of breath among the scores of Chinese political and business heavyweights in the audience.

Many sat bolt upright in their chairs, beaming at Mr Rudd's virtuosity.

The effect could not have been greater had the family's precocious nine-year-old played a Chopin prelude perfectly for the visiting relatives after Christmas lunch.

But it worked so well because Mr Rudd was not acting like a show-off.

He spoke at length in English first, displaying a commanding grasp of China's history and development into an economic giant, before seeking his audience's indulgence to welcome Mr Hu personally in Chinese.

In other news, China's PetroChina oil company signed a deal Thursday to purchase 2-3 million metric tons of liquified natural gas a year from an Australian producer for the next 15-20 years -- Australia's largest export deal ever.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China George W. Bush Globalization How The World Works