Grandeur And Centrality
Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between France and China.
By David Gosset
If the speech pronounced 48 years ago in Phnom Penh by the French President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) belongs to the Gaullist epic, the use by the Chinese director Wong Kar-wai of the statesman’s arrival in the Khmer capital as a newsreel sequence of “In the Mood for Love” was certainly unexpected. Open to various interpretations, this realistic moment in a highly poetic creation signals the subtle presence of De Gaulle in the Chinese psyche.
One repeatedly attributes to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) a statement he probably never uttered and which has become an inept cliché: “When China awakes, the world will shake.” In a press conference on September 9, 1965, Charles de Gaulle did present a more nuanced view: “A fact of considerable significance is at work and is reshaping the world: China's very deep transformation puts her in a position to have a global leading role.”
Time has confirmed De Gaulle’s prediction, the Chinese renaissance has modified the world's distribution of power in a gradual and peaceful process without any abrupt discontinuity nor violent disruption.
On January 27, three days before the beginning of the Year of the Horse, one will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the People's Republic of China. From a French perspective, the full recognition of the Beijing's government was, above all, the decision of one man, Charles de Gaulle, one of France's greatest statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century world politics.
Days after the 1964 announcement, the Time magazine commented the new state of affairs in a report on French diplomacy from Richelieu to De Gaulle which gave a sense of the global echo and significance of the Gaullist breakthrough: “As a nation, France has seemed to be dying all through the 20th century … Yet last week the impossible had apparently come true, and France was once more a mover and shaker in world affairs ... To cap his nation's re-emergence as a world power, De Gaulle recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the government of China, brushing aside protests from Washington that the move would seriously damage U.S. policy in Asia.”
In the geopolitical context of the 1960s, De Gaulle's judgment upon China was visionary and an illustration of his ability to discern the fundamental historical trends from perhaps more spectacular but less consequential phenomena.
His acumen and strategic thinking were not only at the origin of a special relationship between Paris and Beijing, but the spirit of his groundbreaking decision remains a point of reference for the future of the Sino-French cooperation.
Only members of the Soviet bloc immediately recognized the new Chinese regime in 1949. Although Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, liechtenstein and the UK established relations with China one year after Mao Zedong (1893-1976) had proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic on Tiananmen Square, France was the first among the major Western countries to opt for diplomatic relations with Beijing at the ambassadorial level.
When Lucien Paye (1907-1972), who had been minister of education, arrived in Beijing on May 27, 1964 as De Gaulle's first ambassador in China, the 15-year-old People's Republic was not only in an ideological battle against the American-led Western world, but it was also at odds with its two gigantic neighbors, India and the USSR.
The American President, Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), a Democrat, adhered to a policy of systematic containment and actively supported the massive American military intervention in Vietnam in order to stop what he feared to be the expansion of communism. Furthermore, in 1962, India clashed with the People's liberation Army over border disputes in the Himalayas, and in another sign of a Sino-Soviet split, Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) tended to back the Pandit Nehru (1889-1964) in its complex relations with China.
Due to the preeminent American position in the post-Second World War global order, Nixon's opening to Beijing in the 70s was a geopolitical watershed of the highest importance. Commentators often expand on the American triangular diplomacy which used the options offered by the rivalries between Beijing and Moscow, an ironic American application of the Chinese strategy of “using the foreigners to subdue the foreigners” – yi yi zhi yi.
The former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conceived and masterfully orchestrated this foreign policy shift, but Nixon's national security advisor has acknowledged in Diplomacy (1994) the French General's foresight: “Interestingly enough, the leader who had first perceived the opportunities inherent in a Sino-Soviet split was the old man of European diplomacy, De Gaulle”. But, regrettably, Kissinger chose to ignore in his more recent On China (2011) the pioneering role played by Gaullian France as if he wishes to be remembered with the passage of time as the original trailblazer.
In the 1960s, isolated on the international stage, China was also facing an internal crisis of considerable magnitude. In 1958 the central government wanted to accelerate the country's industrialization in a “Great Leap Forward”. It was an enormous economic failure, a move backward which generated a tragic collective disaster. With Peng Dehuai's courageous disapproval of the movement at the Lushan conference, but also Deng Xiaoping and liu Shaoqi's legitimate criticisms of Mao's radical economic policies, the ruling communist party was seriously divided.
It is in this context that at the end of 1962, Mao Zedong composed the poem Winter Clouds which encapsulated his perception of the imminent dangers looming over China. In it, the Long March's old commander boldly pointed at hostile foreign forces with vivid metaphors: “Only heroes can quell tigers and leopards and wild bears never daunt the brave”.
In circumstances which would have deterred less confident characters, De Gaulle demonstrated his sound resolution, on January 31, 1964, in the Élysée Palace, he explained his decision to recognize Beijing in a press conference attended by hundreds of journalists.
1.96 m tall, affectionately called by the French people “le Grand Charles”, he was a prodigious orator who had written six books before he embarked on his famous Memoirs. In the Gaullian orations like in the Churchillian addresses the echo of the greatest Hellenic voices metamorphosed authority into charisma.
The press conference contained his thoughts on China, but is also a memorable moment of Gaullian dramaturgy which is described in these terms by the Time writer: “More than 1,000 newsmen, diplomats and officials were perched anxiously on a sea of spindly gold chairs when at the stroke of 3:00 pm the raspberry-red curtains parted and De Gaulle lumbered to the podium”.
The theatrical appearance should not distract from the rich content of De Gaulle's presentation. His reasoning was solidly based upon two pillars which are also two distinctive features of Gaullism: a long-term view and the effort to take into consideration, beyond transitory events or relatively short-lived phenomena, more permanent realities.
The French statesman began his conference with demographic and geographic facts. “The great Chinese people”, the largest on earth, inhabit a very vast country, “compact but without unity”, which, “spans from Asia Minor and Europe's marchlands to the immense Pacific coast and from the freezing Siberia to the tropical regions of India and Tonkin”. De Gaulle comprehended the implications of China's size and considering “the weight of evidence and reason” decided that one had to work with the Chinese leadership. Long-lasting solutions to any serious problem in Asia or even in the world depends on the active and constructive participation of China.
Then, De Gaulle introduced the keystone of his thinking on the Chinese world: China is not a nation or a nation-state, but fundamentally is a civilization, a “very unique and very deep civilization”.
Obviously, France's early recognition of the People’s Republic of China was a political gesture with geopolitical motives, by recognizing Mao's government Paris signaled to both Washington and Moscow that France was an autonomous diplomatic force. De Gaulle was also well aware that China's strategic objective was to consolidate her sovereignty and to strengthen her independence.
It was on October 16, 1964 that Beijing detonated its first nuclear weapon at the Lop Nur test site. One year earlier, neither France nor China had signed the Partial Test Ban treaty, which aimed to limit the arms race. De Gaulle believed that a multipolar order would be more conducive to sustainable equilibrium than either unipolarity or the dangerous bipolar structure. In some circles, De Gaulle's politics of grandeur caused uneasiness and uproar.
On February 7, 1964, Maurice Couve de Murville (1907-1999), De Gaulle's Foreign Minister, was on Time magazine's cover with a felicitous backdrop, the “Gazer” by Jean-Antoine Watteau, a 18th century French painter known for his chinoiserie, an arty allusion to De Gaulle's China policy.
In the following issue, the magazine published a letter from one of its readers which gives an idea of the strong emotion triggered by France's new stand: “Thank you for putting Couve de Murville's picture on the cover of last week's Time magazine. This will enable thousands of people like me to tear it up, burn it, or even step on it. How dare France call Taipei the government of Formosa and recognize Mao's Beijing as the government of China?”
At the opposite of such violent opposition, when Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) heard the news of the recognition while on a visit in Africa, he addressed the French Ambassador in Sudan: “Bonjour, bonjour, comment allez-vous?”, and recalled that he had been a student in France in the 1920s.
However, by entirely reducing De Gaulle's decision to politics one is missing a fundamental component of Gaullism. When he apprehended China as a civilization, De Gaulle transcended the usual geopolitical calculations and took into account a more essential reality. For him the French administration had to work with another foreign government but, more fundamentally, he wanted the old French nation to connect with the immemorial Chinese civilization.
De Gaulle was so focused on the idea of permanence that he evoked an “eternal China” which is “conscious and proud of an immutable perennity”. Revealingly, De Gaulle's most important link with Asia and arguably one of his most influential sources of information on China, was not a diplomat or a businessman, but a powerful writer, who served the French President during a decade as the country’s first Minister for Cultural Affairs (1959-1969).
André Malraux (1901-1976), an incarnation of the engaged intellectual, commentator and actor of the 20th century major crises, combined an encyclopedic erudition with the traveler's experience of the world's diversity. At the age of 22 he explored the Khmer culture, and through his life he remained curious about the Asian continent's transformation and followed China's metamorphosis. In Man's Fate, a novel which takes place in Shanghai in 1927, one of his characters is killed in a failed attack against Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), the leader of the Kuomintang.
In De Gaulle’s eyes, Malraux was not only another member of the French government but, as he wrote in his Memoirs, “this brilliant friend, fervent about exceptional destinies”. Malraux's intellectual dialogue with the elements of the Chinese civilization and De Gaulle's inclination toward the permanence of culture reinforced each other.
In 1965, De Gaulle asked Malraux to visit China as his personal envoy. In Beijing, 40 years after his first trip to China, Malraux had conversations with Chen Yi (1901-1972), the Chinese Foreign Minister who had been commander of the New Fourth Army and the first mayor of Shanghai after 1949, but also with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. like Zhou Enlai, but also Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), Chen Yi had spent some time in France after the First World War, an episode conducive to a sentiment of relative proximity between some of the Chinese leaders and the French elite.
Malraux published the content of his conversations in his Anti-memoirs (1967), an epic narrative where historical forces forge extraordinary lives as much as powerful human wills make history.
Malraux visualizes Mao as the “Emperor of bronze” and he announces in a Delphic manner that “300 hundred years of European energy are fading while the Chinese-era begins”. He also attributes to the “Emperor of bronze” these intriguing words: “I am alone … or just with few faraway friends: please convey my regards to the General de Gaulle”.
De Gaulle and Mao never met but Malraux noticed that they had in common the same extraordinary “inner aloofness”. In the “White House Years”, Kissinger drew also a parallel between the two figures. Talking about Mao he wrote: “I have met no one, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, who so distilled raw, concentrated willpower.”
Malraux did not only influence De Gaulle's perception on China but he had also an impact on the way Nixon approached his journey to Beijing. Before his trip to China in February 1972, the American President invited the 71-year-old French author to the White House. In his memoirs, Nixon remembers: “I asked Malraux again what came after Mao. Malraux replied: 'It is exactly as Mao said, he has no successor.' What did he mean by it? He meant that in his view the great leaders - Churchill, Gandhi, De Gaulle - were created by the kind of traumatic historical events that will not occur in the world anymore”.
In his dramatic conversation with the media, De Gaulle consistently mentioned the roots of the past as a nourishment of his reflection. On the Chinese state, he hyperbolically declared that it is “more ancient than History”, by going at the limit of the recorded memory he paradoxically developed a perceptive understanding of the present. It is with a sincere empathy that De Gaulle reminded his audience of China's painful adjustment to modernity over the past one hundred years, and the Chinese people's sentiment of humiliation when they had to suffer Western imperialism.
As the hero of the resistance against Nazism, De Gaulle fought for the independence of his country, as one of the main architects of decolonization he defended the dignity of other nations.
De Gaulle concluded his presentation with a remark on what he called the “affinities” between France and China, while some chose to emphasize what separates the two edges of Eurasia, he rightly insisted on the mutual attraction and the commonalities between the two powers.
From the majestic but distant relations between the Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) and the King Louis XIV (1638-1715), to the collaboration between Zuo Zongtang (1812-1885) and Prosper Giquel (1835-1886), or the action in the field of education by li Shizeng (1881-1973) and his support Édouart Herriot (1872-1957) or Alphonse Aulard (1849-1928), Chinese Francophiles always responded to the call of French Sinophiles.
The world has changed significantly in the past five decades but the mutations did not affect radically the relevance of Gaullism which is, in its highest expression, the effort to act according to permanent realities.
De Gaulle thought and acted under the light of la grandeur, a notion which is at the heart of France’s national character. The relative weight of the French power varies, and it has certainly been diminishing by comparison with the Chinese reemergence, but the self-perception of the singular role it has to play is constant.
The imperatives of liberté, Égalité and Fraternité, French propositions to the world, have been both a product and a generator of this passion for grandeur, only the exalted aspiration of a nation in movement could proclaim such revolutionary principles but they were at the same time the source of a powerful collective energy.
In the Chinese context, centrality – zhong, 中 – mirrors the French grandeur. If a sense of grandeur inspired the French monarchs, emperors and presidents, the “Middle Country” envisioned for itself centrality under Heaven. Versailles and the Forbidden City, the Place of La Concorde and Tiananmen Square are obvious architectural illustrations of the correspondence between the “Grande Nation” and the “Middle Country”.
China which has been through the millenia a prodigious process of synthesis unifying one fifth of mankind will go on to apply her harmonizing force at a global level.
Animated by a conscious effort of radiation or rayonnement, France aims to federate around what she conceives and enunciates as an enlightening project, by contrast, China’s impact is by gravitation, the “Middle Country” coheres around its demographic mass and the continuity of its civilization.
Having the highest self-image, the Chinese and the French are, taken collectively, especially sensitive to the variations of fortune and, when the inevitable vicissitudes of history reduce the grandeur or the centrality to a mere nostalgic representation, the sentiment of loss can be for them more acute than for other political bodies.
Beyond the contingent parameters of the Sino-French relations, transient administrations or politico-economic conditions, Paris and Beijing, concerned by the destiny of mankind, will always find it necessary to articulate an explicit grandeur and an implicit centrality.
In the 21st century they have to coordinate the “China Dream” of renaissance and what the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius names in reference to his country “puissance d’influence”, “influential power”.
Ironically, the gap between France’s representation of herself and the weight of her relative power is widening and, therefore, contrasts with the Chinese centrality which is increasingly effective, but the global evolution won’t erase the rich French heritage nor the French contribution to the making of Europe, and, more generally, it is precisely in the middle of the most challenging circumstances that the idea of grandeur itself can re-energize the country.
The synergies between centrality and grandeur are more than the affirmation of two separate political identities, they are impulsions for the new humanism of a global renaissance, connections between East and West as much as North and South, they are concrete universalism.
More than two millennia ago Confucian humanism elevated the Chinese world, in the 18th century the “Encyclopedists”, Diderot (1713-1784), D’Alembert (1717-1783) or Condorcet (1743-1794), enlightened an entire continent, in a world of unprecedented interdependence the Sino-French intellectual interactions have already contributed to the making of a global civilization.
When the last grand master of the Chinese traditional painting, Fan Zeng, resurrects Charles De Gaulle in an ink portrait, grandeur and centrality have already cross-fertilized, the human quest for solidarity and progress has ceased to be French or Chinese, it has simply become universal.
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.