In politics, and in life in general, culture matters. The best way to observe cultural difference is to study a negotiation process. On one hand it showcases the strategy and the personality of the negotiator, and on the other hand, it exemplifies how parties to the negotiation perceive one another but also perceive time. Understanding others’ customs, values and rites, as well as history is crucial. Failing to understand this will most certainly lead to problems; at the highest political ranks, this can lead to diplomatic crises or even to wars if the back channels are not able to mend the offend. Successfully understanding the other will however increase the chance of a positive outcome for the discussion.
The Hong Kong negotiations
Take the example of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Independence of Hong Kong signed by the UK and China in 1984. The accord settled the question of the future of Hong Kong, as the UK’s lease on the New Territories was due to end in 1997. The agreement stated that the entirety of the territory of Hong Kong would be returned to China by the United Kingdom at the end of July 1997. In return, the Middle Kingdom would implement its “one country, two systems” administrative arrangement, thus respecting Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and other local specificities. In order to reach such an agreement, both parties to the negotiation had to work with the other’s demands and negotiation techniques. Margaret Thatcher’s team managed to get many concessions from Deng Xiaoping’s as they managed to understand the Chinese protocol and use it to their advantage. The Brits respected the Chinese chain of command, the negotiators built personal relations which made Peking put aside their resentment that two centuries of British domination had caused. The outcomes of the negotiation were positive for both parties: China got Hong Kong back, thus sending a strong message to Taiwan and reinforcing the stature of Deng Xiaoping at the national level, while the UK managed to secure their economic interests and ensured a smooth transition from British to Chinese rule for the territory.
The Poppy Scandal
As you have probably noticed, the UK and the decision-makers’ lapels get pinned by a red poppy every year around th end of October – early November. This symbol was created in remembrance of the 11th of November, the anniversary of the World War I armistice. This symbol is so enshrined into British politics and memory that former Prime Minister Tony Blair wears this red flower in his official portrait. It is with that same poppy that David Cameron travelled to China in November 2010.
I mentioned earlier that China resented the UK because of two centuries of domination. The high points of this domination are referred to as the Opium Wars (the first one was in 1839-1842, the 2nd in 1956-1860 – more info here), which awarded commercial privileges and territorial gains to the foreign powers. Now, remember that opium is made from poppies. The fact that the British Prime Minister wore a poppy during a visit to China brought to the surface a strong anti-colonial and bitter taste in the Chinese’s mouths.
Wearing that poppy, and keeping it on despite the Chinese protocol clearly demanding those symbols to be put away, was a clear diplomatic and cultural risk. Cameron and four members of his Cabinet, not without negotiation, were allowed to keep the pin on. The importance of the purpose of the visit, which was to enhance the economic partnership of the two countries and sign new deals probably pushed the Chinese to make this concession. The rest of the diplomatic visit was dedicated to economic considerations, but also to making clear that China had some work to do on the democratic front, furthering the offense by directly criticizing the local political practices.
Confronting the two examples
All in all, this visit can be regarded as very condescending. A former colonial power went to visit a former colony, and wore a symbol of this domination despite the fact that the hosts asked for this emblem to be removed. If we transpose this situation to that of the negotiation of Hong Kong, Thatcher’s government would never have made this decision. Why? For the simple reason that there was too much on the table at the time. The UK could have potentially been forced to hand back Hong Kong to the Middle Kingdom without getting anything in return if they had not played their cards right.
In the first negotiation, the UK approached China in a position of weakness and hoping go secure their interests even if the power balance was against them. They followed the lead of Peking to avoid possible offense. None was made and the two countries left the signature ceremony content. In 2010, Cameron went to China in a position of strength, aware that China was willing to negotiate economic deals even though the UK had offended them several times, by wearing the poppy but also by openly criticizing their human rights violations.
It is then possible to assume that cultural understanding is only advisable and practiced when in a weak position, as demonstrated by the Chinese’s willingness to let Cameron wear the poppy during the official visit; it then only a detail when in a position of strength, when the weak party is desperate and is willing to accept everything to secure some benefits and its vital interests.
So, where do we draw the line? What should we do – or not do – in order to avoid offending others, even though the offense is perpetrated by our national identity? But more importantly, should economic opportunities be considered acceptable excuses to baffle others’ culture? Should business allow us to be offensive?
Another example caught my eye a few months ago. Belgium wanted to introduce euro coins commemorating the battle of their victory in Waterloo against Napoleon. Needless to say that, as a French person, I was offended by the idea. Belgium and France have good diplomatic relations, they are close economic and cultural partners, are both part of the EU, NATO, etc. So, shouldn’t have Brussels taken Paris’s feelings into account when introducing the idea to the European Bank?
If Heads of State do not hesitate to offend their friends and partners, how can we expect people to be accepting of others?