China Demands Apology Over Beijing Embassy Incident – Saving face ahead of SED?

From the May 2 online edition of the People’s Daily (

China demands U.S. apology on Chen Guangcheng’s entering U.S. embassy
(People’s Daily Online)
16:13, May 02, 2012
BEIJING, May 2 (People’s Daily Online) — China demands the U.S to apologize for a Chinese citizen’s entering the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry said here Wednesday.

It is informed that Chen Guangcheng, a native from Yinan County of eastern China’s Shandong Province, entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in late April and left of his own volition after a six-day stay in the embassy, said Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.

This is a little unusual because of what was said, when the statement was released, and what was not said. But the most interesting thing is the timing.

China has demanded an apology – following a controversial, high-level negotiation about the fate of a Chinese lawyer who was most likely seeking asylum at the US embassy in Beijing. News of Mr. Chen’s presence in the embassy came only days before a high-level (and high profile) set of US-China meetings known as the SED – Strategic and Economic Dialogue ( ) Sec of State Clinton and Sec of Finance Geithner are both in Beijing ahead of the meeting, and Hillary Clinton was said to have intervened in the Chen case directly. Now that he has left the embassy — of his own volition for the purpose of receiving medical treatment – all sides of the dispute will spin events to their best advantage.

The US will talk about values, personal liberty, and protection of rights.

The Chinese side will talk about sovereignty, the dignity of the Chinese people, and foreigners meddling in Chinese affairs.

There is a clash of values at play that many international managers will recognize. When the Chinese side talks about issues related to pride, honor, and image, the real issue is Face, or mian-zi. Demands for an apology accomplish several things for the Chinese side, that all international managers should take note of.

    First — by appearing as the injured party, they are shifting the onus to the other side. This is a common – and highly effective – negotiating technique. Notice that the People’s Daily release makes no mention of human rights, mistreatment, or Chen’s months of house arrest. The ordinary Chinese people are the victim, and the US government is cast as the instigator.

    Second — a new issue is created. The controversy now is “will the US apologize or not?” – not human rights (or how Chen managed to get to the embassy in the first place).

    Third — focus now shifts to the street level. Netizens and bloggers will take up the issue, and the debate will be carried on by ordinary people (and the paid propagandists who will struggle to shape the event as a nationalist scandal)

    Finally — Balance (or Harmony in China) is restored. China gets to start the SED meeting (important to them) without the nuisance or embarrassment of the Chen case (important to the US but not important to the Chinese officials) hanging over their head as a distraction.

The key take-away for international managers is that Face counts. Westerners tend to focus on substantive issues. We like to identify who was right, who was wrong, and see final, definitive justice served. The Chinese side is more concerned with what happens next. Americans solve conflict by looking at the events leading up to the incident — Chinese solve conflicts by looking at events that flow from the incident.

Neither approach is wrong, as long as each side recognizes the needs and customs of the other. Western managers who disregard matters of Face as unimportant mannerisms and emotional gestures are displaying just the kind of insensitivity that offends people and stirs up conflict. But Chinese stakeholders who cling too tightly to pride and quickly take umbrage at perceived slights end up embroiled in pointless conflict that can easily spin out of control. It is the job of the international manager to focus on business — and make use of the opportunity that “saving face” presents them to allow potentially heated conflicts to cool off and gradually fade away.

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