You’d like to think there’s a secret building somewhere in Beijing where bilingual bureaucrats cook up insults for those who offend China – a department for Chinese burns perhaps?.
If there is, how did they learn their craft? Watching Monty Python and Fawlty Towers?
Calling Australia “a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog to the US”, has, to my ear, definite echoes of “English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, son of a silly person”, from the 1975 movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
And it’s not hard to imagine Basil Fawlty fuming along the lines of another recent Chinese zinger:
“Somehow Australia is jumping up and down again and again. It is like chewing gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe. Sometimes you just have to find a rock and rub it off!”
Whether the Chinese are seriously trying to offend us or are just playing it for laughs (probably not), they’re really just engaging in the long-established practice of diplomacy through insult.
And, surprisingly perhaps, a well-placed verbal swipe can have a real effect.
Bob Hawke said it was former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s warning in 1980 that Australia was destined to become the “poor white trash” of Asia that stung him into action to reform Australia’s economy.
But more often than not it comes across as silly, snarky or just plain boorish.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Donald Trump reportedly said during a briefing on immigration law a couple of years ago.
Countries so labelled – Haiti, El Salvador and various African nations – were understandably outraged.
The most pungent response came from Vicente Fox, a former president of Mexico, a regular target of Trumpian insults.
“Donald Trump, your mouth is the foulest shithole in the world. With what authority do you proclaim who’s welcome in America and who’s not,” Fox tweeted.
.@realDonaldTrump, your mouth is the foulest shithole in the world. With what authority do you proclaim who’s welcome in America and who’s not. America’s greatness is built on diversity, or have you forgotten your immigrant background, Donald?
— Vicente Fox Quesada (@VicenteFoxQue) January 11, 2018
Which shows that world leaders can be as crude as everyone else.
But it also shows that Trump knew exactly how to play to his supporters, who were unlikely to be swayed by the insults of a former Mexican president or the cries of outrage from countries they’d never heard of.
With that said, a lot of diplomatic insults are completely unintentional.
Some years back, according to several trustworthy sources – a Queensland government minister travelled to South Korea where he fulsomely praised his guests for their warm welcome.
Especially impressive, he said, given that just a few years earlier we had been enemies on the battlefield.
“That was North Korea,” his minder whispered, but too late.
Fortunately, no permanent damage was done. South Korea is still one of our biggest trading partners. North Korea less so.
More difficult to confirm is the time Bjelke-Petersen-era minister Russ Hinze is said to have met a Japanese delegation, which presented him with a ceremonial box of lotus seeds.
“As these seeds take root and grow strong so shall our mutual friendship flourish,” the Japanese said, in Japanese.
Hinze, not waiting for the translation, offered his guests appreciative thanks before pouring the seeds into his hand and eating them.
“Mmm, I like these,” he is alleged to have said, ever the diplomat.
Then there was the time an Austrade Trade Commissioner in Mexico tried to impress an audience of wealthy cattlemen and their wives with his mastery of Spanish.
They were on their way to Australia for a trade show and were elegantly kitted out with cowboy hats and hand-tooled leather belts and boots.
“I very much like your beautiful boots,” the trade commissioner said as an icebreaker only to be met with stony silence and glares.
“You’ve just told the men you like their beautiful whores,” his local assistant whispered
He’d mixed up the Spanish word for boot, ‘bota’ with ‘puta’, Spanish for whore.
Luckily, their tickets to Australia were already booked.
But back to China.
Last week they were expressing their annoyance at the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – collectively known as the Five Eyes intelligence partnership – for their critical comments about China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.
“No matter if they have five eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Which does lend credence to the British comedy-as-a-source-of -inspiration theory.
Monty Python did, after all, once have a live production called A Poke in the Eye (With a Sharp Stick), which, as Wikipedia notes, “was the first show in what later became the iconic Secret Policeman’s Ball series of benefits shows for human rights organisation Amnesty International”.
But perhaps I’m reading too much into this.
On reflection, I don’t think the Chinese are trying to be silly at all.