Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who Will Run Xiamen's Foreign Consulates?

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University

Xiamen government seems to be taking the Field of Dreams approach in building its new "consulate district." "If you build it, they will come!" Or so they hope. Personally, I think they should have the consulates on Gulangyu Islet, where they used to be. While 100 years ago Gulangyu was the richest square mile on earth, today the government is struggling to break even, much less break a profit, on the tiny garden islet. Xiamen should abandon its periodic visions of transforming the former international settlement into a Chinese Disneyland and once again use Gulangyu's buildings for worthwhile purposes, such as consulates and schools. Of course, they haven't asked for my opinion...

Regardless of where the consulates are located, I do hope more countries open consuls here. It will be good for Xiamen, and good for the foreign countries as well. But newly arrived Consuls would do well to choose carefully their Chinese staff, lest locals not only dictate where consuls are located but also what goes on inside them as well! As MacGowan noted over a century ago, "weak-willed" foreign consuls can easily end up wrapped around the finger of their Chinese secretary, even as my household sometimes seems under the thumb of our helper of 20 years, the indefatigable Lixi! I hope you enjoy this amusing extract from John MacGowan's 1907 work, "Sidelights on Chinese Life" (1907, pp. 16,17).

Chinese in the Foreign Consulates
Perhaps the most conspicuous instance of the dominating influence of the Chinaman is seen in the foreign Consulates. In each of these there is a Chinese official employed that is called a writer. He is a gentleman and a member of the literary class. His duties are to write dispatches in Chinese to the mandarins and to be the one connecting link between the native authorities and the particular foreign Consul in whose service he happens to be. All petitions or complaints from the Chinese have to go through his hands, so that his position is one of great responsibility and power.

If the Consul happens to be a man of strong, independent character he will hold his own, and the business of the Consulate will be in a large measure under his own control.

If he is, however, easy-going or of average intellectual ability, he comes at once under the hypnotizing influence of the wily self-contained Chinaman, who before long becomes the master spirit in the office. This fact is so far realized by the leading mandarin of the place that he actually subsidizes him to influence the policy of the Consul to be favourable to him. A hostile writer could so easily influence his mind against the former, and cause such strained diplomatic relations, that he would incur the resentment of his superiors and be dismissed from his office.

I have known a case where the whole policy of a Consulate was dictated by the writer, who was a clever, intriguing scamp. All Chinese documents had to pass through his hands, and it depended upon the amount of the bribes received whether any of them got a dispassionate investigation at the hands of the Consul. His reputation became so bad that he was finally asked to resign, but he did so with a very comfortable fortune that enabled him to take a commanding position amongst the leading men in his neighbourhood.

In whatever direction one likes to take the Chinaman, he seems to have an hypnotic power that secures, if not favour, at least attention.

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