Getting to know Li Keqiang the right way

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MAURO GIA SAMONTE

FROM the time the South China Sea tension began to heighten in 2008 (that was the year the much touted pivot of the United States from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region was the main preoccupation in geopolitics), it has become my magnificent obsession to have a one-on-one with a highly placed Chinese leader. My humble effort at studying history truthfully has instilled in me a particularly strong conviction that China has never been an invading nation. And that in all cases in which that country has been involved in a war with another nation, the bone of contention was territorial boundary. This has been true with its wars with India, Vietnam, and Tibet, to name a few examples. However, this view of mine on China has invariably been contradicted by media accounts picturing China as the aggressor in the South China Sea conflict. Over time I inevitably nursed that obsession of talking to a Chinese leader by way of getting answers to my questions right out of the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

I thought the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in 2015 (the second to be hosted by the Philippines since 1996) was a golden opportunity. Attending was Chinese President Xi Jinping, reputed as the only person to have made cyber tech moguls (Apple, Microsoft and Facebook) wait 15 minutes for him to arrive at a meeting. And so I asked then Manila Times Chief Editor Rene Q. Bas to get me a one-on-one with him. I have really not gotten over my native naivetè, which explains why I threw that request to Rene as though getting a one-on-one with a renowned Chinese icon is as easy as ordering siomai and mami in an obscure Valenzuela street corner.

“Mao,” said Rene in his cool, casual, amiable, winsome way of dealing with difficulties, “all reporters covering Apec want that one-on-one. All ended up getting none.”

Rene is just that kind of guy who hasn’t got the heart to say, “Forget it.”

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Of late, I tried doing a repeat of that effort, this time on Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua through a friend who has his way in the Chinese Embassy. I have been bothered by certain pronouncements of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte to the effect of finally taking up the South China Sea row “within the four corners” of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, and I desired words coming out of a responsible Chinese official’s mouth in that respect.

“It is extremely difficult,” or words to this effect come the reply from my friend.
Doesn’t the ambassador do that?

“Not ever. Mostly press statements. But let’s see. But I tell you. It won’t be easy.”

In my frustration over the Xi Jinping case, I browsed through the Internet, culled quotes of the Chinese President from this and that occasion, and, the film director that I am, spliced them together with my questions, and, voila, what came out was an impressive Q&A which I aptly titled: “The One-On-One That Never Was.”

With Li Keqiang this time, though, I hope I don’t go through another illusory approach. This PH-China row on the South China Sea is getting to be bothersome again, what with Duterte’s apparent swing back to alliance with the United States, the real party-in-interest in the Philippines’ taking up an aggressive stance in pushing the PCA ruling favoring the country’s claim to portions of those waters. In my recent past columns, I took pains to lay down some premises for my perception that China will never attack the Philippines. But as the word denotes, mine is just a perception. Indeed. I need confirmation of it, and no such confirmation can be made by anybody other than a responsible element not only of the Chinese government but also of the Chinese Communist Party which controls that government. (During my visit to Shanghai, I was informed by the tour guide that all the way down to the littlest employee of the Chinese government is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. “You cannot work in the government unless you are a member of the party,” said the guide, himself included.)

Premier Li Keqiang rose from the ranks, from being secretary general of the Communist Youth League at Peking University to governor of Henan province, member of the Politburo standing committee at the 17th party congress in October 2007, to various other government and party posts leading ultimately to Vice Premier, first in rank, under Premier Wen Jiabao. When Wen Jiabao retired in 2013, Li, as expected, was elected by the 12th National People’s Congress as Premier.

On my many concerns in regard to PH-China relations (the question of whether or not the latter will attack the former being actually just one of those concerns), Li’s attendance at the Asean summit from November 10 to 15 is certainly another golden opportunity to realize my long-desired one-on-one with a Chinese bigwig.

This time I think I have grown wiser. As Kit Tatad would put it, first things first. Begin with the basics.
How do I pronounce his name: Li Keqiang.

According to an authority, saying a Chinese name is not as easy as it appears. If I pronounce Li Keqiang correctly, then I set the tone for getting to know the Chinese Premier the right way.

(To be continued)

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