A diplomat of character

Updated: 2011-05-20 11:04

By Mike Peters (China Daily European Weekly)

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Belgian envoy draws on personal fascination for things Chinese to help build relations between two countries

A diplomat of character
Patrick Nijs was appointed as Belgium's ambassador to China in 2009.[Zhang Tao/China Daily]

Editor's note: This is part of a monthly series on European ambassadors.

It was the characters that got him.

"I remember being fascinated by the beauty of Chinese characters as a child," says Patrick Nijs, Belgium's soft-spoken ambassador to China.

"They were so elegant, so sophisticated.

"You don't just do 1-2-3-4-5, you know?" he says. "To draw, you must have a good balance in yourself if you want to do it beautifully and well.

"Even if I don't understand it, I can look at calligraphy and get into its meaning - the energy and life," he says. "No other medium delivers so much beyond the literal meaning - you have the life of the sign by itself, always referring to the meaning but getting free of the meaning from time to time."

Despite that passion for the language, Nijs does not speak Mandarin.

A small country like Belgium usually does not have the luxury of sending its diplomats to a year or two of language school before they take up a posting like Beijing, though they study Chinese after they arrive.

"We have about 400 diplomats to staff 140 diplomatic missions. So our foreign service officers must be more multifaceted, not so specialized - people build their careers by moving from place to place."

And yet, Nijs has become a specialist. "I've been in Beijing 20 months as ambassador," he says. "But I've been in China - or been about China - since 1997, when I came from Osaka to be consul general in Shanghai for three years.

"I've been studying Chinese for a year. On average, I spend 2 hours 15 minutes every day on Chinese.

"I really feel very frustrated - not liberated - not to be able to speak Chinese. But in my position, when I go out it's kind of artificial. I have to speak with caution, on sensitive issues, so I can't afford any language risk. I must be very accurate, be understood. If I had to do this in Chinese, my Chinese should be the best, and this is not the case.

"And if you start in Chinese, then Chinese will want to continue in Chinese, so in negotiations you feel weaker. So it is better to say nothing (in Chinese).

"I can study a lot," he says, shaking his head, "but practice is difficult."

Representing his country's political and trade interests also keeps Nijs too busy for his language lessons.

Belgium is China's sixth- or seventh-largest trade partner in Europe, largely because Belgium exports account for nearly 80 percent of its GDP.

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