Monday, 10 September 2007

Rudd rubs shoulders with Hu and sweet talks in Putonghua

At the Sydney APEC summit, Kevin Rudd, though not a government minister but opposition leader so that counts, presented himself very well at this international occasion. In particular to him, this is a chance not just to meet world leaders but to meet a special guest of honour Hu Jintao from China because of the multiple links behind the meeting.
Rudd has good reasons to be very pleased for catching a chance to show off his Putonghua speaking skill, one that had not been overwhelmingly appreciated in Australia. As a low ranking diplomat in Beijing, Rudd could not convincingly show that language skill as a strong credit for his career back home, since not many Australians understood that and did not care by that time. In the mid 1980s, I came to Australia and met a young Australian Peter who can speak Putonghua like Beijing natives (he lived and studied in Beijing for years). Now he is somewhere in the federal government as a senior translator or official in some capacity, but in those less exciting days, he was supposed to teach the language in some local schools (hard to find) or do something totally away from using that language. Rudd had the same problems and instead he went into politics. Another way is to teach Chinese at universities, like Professor Colin Mackerras or others. As I mentioned before, Rudd once had a rare chance being interviewed by a Putonghua speaking host on a Hong Kong TV programme about WTO and international trade. He performed well, spoke with confidence, and beat the heavy accented host in Putonghua by not just a few metres. It is obvious indeed that Rudd was extremely happy to finally demonstrate that his language skill is as good as he declared, and that even native Putonghua speakers would be awed by that. That TV programme, though only shown in Hong Kong, filled a big hole in his mind, at least diminished some of his hidden regrets of learning a language most Australians pay little attention to, despite economic and business connections between China and Australia.
This time it is totally different. The APEC meeting is a many folds larger stage than that TV programme, and Rudd, becoming the opposition leader after that TV talk, steps on under international media limelight not only to present himself as a credible national leader, but also to project his image as a genuine friend of a country important to Australia. The best way to convince is none other than speaking their own language. In this case, Rudd had made preparations for decades, not as a smart politician rushing to pronounce a few simple words just for the occasion to please the guests, but as a learned near native speaker toiling at the low point of bilateral relations and then shining eventually when the time finally came. For this reason, there is little ground to mock Rudd's enthusiasm on speaking for a few minutes in Putonghua at that luncheon and at meeting with Hu; if it is a show off, then imagine how one can endure troubles and troubles and neglect to learn an obscure and remote language, try it for yourself.
Hu Jintao is obviously surprised and delighted by this nice gesture from Rudd. The impression is cast in iron, that of a genuine friend of China not just catching the current benefits in, say, mineral exports, but underwent turbulent years working and not giving up. In everywhere around the world, meeting a person not your race but speaking your language is such a moving experience that few would forget. When Hu Jintao visited Australia in the mid 1980s, he must have felt lonely, despite officially organised tours and arrangements, because at that time the Australian government did not fully recognise the vital interest in embracing China and the language in communication was of course all in English. That is why he was so happy to see my wife and me in Melbourne, getting a chance to talk and laugh as one can in such gatherings of native language speakers. It is then not surprising that, after 20 years, a major political figure in an English speaking country talking with Hu in Putonghua made such a good impression on the visiting leader. Now we can talk business.
Rudd did not upstage Howard on purpose; showing off his language skill in public after suppressing it for two decades and narrowing his own distance from Hu are the main goals. But, inevitably, this is interpreted in many ways as what it actually means to Rudd and to Australia. Some noticed that Howard was not looking very comfortable at this; it is also suggested that people around realised the difference between him and Rudd, that he hugged an old ally, Bush, as usual while Rudd embraced a new friend of strength.

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