Over the past few days I’ve been in Beijing, talking to Chinese officials, generals and academics. I was with a small group of Americans and Europeans. Three of the Americans had worked in top foreign-policy jobs in the Clinton administration, and the Europeans included people who currently hold senior positions in the French foreign ministry and the European Commission.
The quasi-diplomatic nature of our “delegation” had a couple of effects. The first was that we got very good access. It also meant that the dialogue often had a curiously formal, indeed formulaic quality to it. The Chinese side were often laying out official positions – much as they would with a visiting government delegation. That can be useful and informative. But it also means that sometimes the real insights come when your hosts stray off their script. It is the stray remark, the occasional flash of temper, the unexpected question and the subtle change in wording that can be the most interesting bits of the discussion.
Anyway, here are some of the impressions I gathered about official Chinese thinking: