Friendship group promotes understanding

Updated: 2012-06-20 16:05

By Harvey Dzodin (

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There has been much discussion lately about China's exercise of both its hard and soft power. There is, however, one unique organization at the intersection of both of these whose success over the past decade is beyond doubt.

Friendship Communication Organization for Ambassadors and Madams on Knowing Chinese Culture, while flying under the radar screen of publicity and self-promotion, is a major tool in quietly helping foreign diplomats to better understand China and its rich culture.

The Friendship Communication Organization was founded in 2002 by John Xing, who has a double PhD and substantial overseas experience. Xing observed that after China's reform and opening up, many foreigners wanted to do business with China, but knew little or nothing about the country or its culture. It was his dream to build a high-end, internationally influential platform for multilateral cultural exchanges.

Under Xing's leadership as its secretary-general, the Friendship Communication Organization has organized nearly 100 activities for foreign diplomats in more than 100 cities and regions. The embassies of all countries with which China has diplomatic relations have participated, although, inexplicably, the United States and French participate the least.

Its small staff of fewer than 20 works with local governments to design programs conducive to cultural and commercial exchanges. These include ensuring that diplomats not only enjoy interesting programs but also that they travel in a secure and comfortable environment.

Typical of its work was its most recent trip to Bijie, in the northwestern part of Guizhou province, home to the world's largest natural park of colorful rhododendron, as well as to the Yi and Miao ethnic peoples. It was 150 km and a bumpy four-hour bus ride from the closest airport in the capital city of Guiyang. In some senses, however, it was a world away as it was clear that many of the people there had never seen a foreigner before.

The sign-up process started in Beijing several weeks before the trip with a launch ceremony featuring performances by the colorfully costumed Yi and Miao peoples and briefings to members of the diplomatic community from local Bijie officials. This program was hosted by CCTV personality Tian Wei and leader of the delegation, Jamaican Ambassador Courtenay Rattray. A total of 15 ambassadors, 50 other diplomats and family members from 33 countries signed up for the trip.

The trip included visits to the flower areas, local parks, a nighttime bonfire dance with the local ethnic peoples and a visit to the local grasslands. It was there that the group was spontaneously invited to the best and most fun meal of the trip, a delicious barbecue of mutton and chicken held by people from Guiyang. This was grassroots international cooperation at its best.

Afghan Ambassador Sultan Baheen, together with his wife, was on his first trip with the Friendship Communication Organization. He said that what was important was that "the trip to Guizhou allowed us to personally experience the cultural revival and its adoption to the modern life since the reform and opening up".

Each trip includes a meeting with local officials and an exchange of gifts and views with them. This also facilitates business and cultural cooperation. As Ambassador Rattray noted: "Normally in our day-to-day work, we only meet central government officials but the Friendship Communication Organization affords us the opportunity to meet local government officials at the city or county level. Especially for us medium or smaller countries it allows us to cultivate relationships and cooperation that are more appropriate in terms of scale."

Another important benefit of these trips, perhaps unintended, is that the diplomats get to know each other better. Hectic Beijing schedules, cocktail parties and diplomatic receptions allow pleasantries to be exchanged but there is not usually sufficient time for in-depth discussions. During these long Friendship Communication Organization trips, there are frequent opportunities to have them over dinner, on the bus and even late into the night.

There is another benefit as well. Diplomatic representatives of countries that are not on friendly terms with some others get a chance to discuss statecraft or merely to get to know each other in a neutral environment. The deputy head of mission of the Syrian embassy, Taha Zuheir, made ample use of his time to explain his government's position in the current crisis to his colleagues, ambassadors included. While enjoying the visit, the trip gave him another forum to express his country's views.

Many of the benefits flow not only to China with diplomats not only learning more about Chinese culture and history but visiting places that they might not otherwise experience. Bijie is hard to reach at the moment although a nearby airport is under construction.

As Turkish Ambassador Murat Selim Esenli said: "I am very pleasantly surprised by the arrangements the Chinese government afford us through the Friendship Communication Organization in terms of these trips. They not only bring our colleagues together but, at the same time, allow us to see parts of China we would not ordinarily get to see in a way that I don’t think that we could put together ourselves."

According to Xing, the second decade of the organization will include more business people to promote cultural and commercial exchanges. Trips planned for the near future include the Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.

The author is a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.

for China Daily

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