Friends indeed

By Li Qian Source:Global Times Published: 2011-7-6 18:52:00

Israel Epstein, left, is feted for his 90th birthday on April 21, 2005 in Beijing. Epstein, born in Poland, became a Chinese citizen in 1957 and joined the Communist Party of China in 1964. He died on May 26, 2005. Photo: CFP

Foreigners who have contributed to China’s development are sometimes bestowed a seemingly simple honorific that says a lot about the esteem with which they are held.   

To be called a Chinese people’s “lao pengyou” (old friend) is something that is not easily earned, nor is it offered willy-nilly. 

To become a “friend” a foreigner must give their heart to the country and understand China’s soul. 

Included among China’s officially recognized friends are powerful past and present world leaders and historical figures who dedicated, and sometime gave their lives, in shared common purpose with China. They also include teachers who helped educate the disadvantaged, medical workers who saved countless lives and foreign experts who helped make progress possible.  

In diplomatic circles the title “Chinese People’s old friend” is not something that is casually bandied about.  “It’s a top honor by China to recognize foreigners who helped with the revolution, or later with the country’s development,” Jia Qingguo, deputy director of the School of International Studies at Peking University, told the Global Times.

Chinese people usually learn who has been designated a “Chinese people’s old friend” from the People’s Daily, whose editors follow the lead of Party leaders before using the term in print. 

Earlier this week the People’s Daily reported that Premier Wen Jiabao used the enduring designation when he called former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and former foreign secretary Geoffery Howe, “Chinese people’s old friends.”

601 official old friends 

An enterprising researcher from Southern Weekend newspaper searched People’s Daily’s online archives and found that since the term was first used by the paper in the mid 1950’s, 601 foreigners have been referred to as “Chinese people’s old friends.”  

The Southern Weekend’s research showed the earliest reference to a “Chinese people’s old friend” in the People’s Daily was in 1956. It was used in an article to describe the contribution of Canadian James Gareth Endicott who was a missionary and English teacher in China’s southwest during the 1920s and 30s.

While there is no medal or ceremony given to the “old friends of Chinese people,” being honored as one in the People’s Daily, which is the official publication of the Communist Party of China, carries a lot of weight. 

An editor with the Politics and Culture Department of People’s Daily said the daily only refers to a foreigner as an “old friend of Chinese people” after Party leaders concur that the respectful honorific has been appropriately earned.

“Chinese people tend to stress fellowship and relationships in diplomacy. Calling others ‘friend’ makes us feel more relaxed,” Zhang Qingmin, a professor with Peking University’s School of International Studies, told Southern Weekend.

Revolutionary comrades

Perhaps the most well-known “old friend of Chinese people” in China is the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune. He worked as a battlefield surgeon during China’s war against the Japanese invasion, and died of blood poisoning after cutting his finger during surgery in 1939.

Not only was Bethune considered an old friend of China, Chairman Mao Zedong eulogized him in one of his famous “old three articles,” which were memorized by a generation of Chinese middle school students. Mao admired Bethune because he was “noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests.”

A number of other doctors from India, Romania and Britain had also been named “old friends of the Chinese people.”

Foreign journalists have earned the distinction as well. “Old friend of Chinese people” is carved on the headstones of Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley. Edgar Snow had half of his ash scattered on Weiming Lake in Peking University.

The three writers witnessed and supported the Chinese revolution and visited China after liberation. Strong returned to China in 1958 and died in Beijing in 1970.

The Smedley-Strong-Snow Society of China was established in 1984, and was later expanded into the China Society for People’s Friendship Studies. In 1985 China issued a set of stamps commemorating the legendary Three Ss.

Another early friend was the journalist Israel Epstein, who became a Chinese citizen in 1957 and joined the Party in 1964.

90th Anniversary of CPC

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Friends around globe

In the world of diplomacy, Japanese politicians and diplomats have earned the most “old friend” references in the People’s Daily, according to Southern Weekend’s research. Of the 601 old friends 111 are Japanese, 55 American, 24 British and 23 French. Other nationalities in the top 10 include Germans, Thais, Canadians, Indians, Italians and several people from Bangladesh.

Many of the Japanese who have been called old friends were given the honor for their contributions to normalizing China-Japan relations. Ten of Japan’s 14 prime ministers who served between 1972 and 1996 have been recognized as China’s old friends.

Several former US presidents and high officials have been designated old friends of China, including Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They were recognized for their ice-breaking visits to China that eventually led to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Perhaps surprisingly Russia has few citizens who have been referred to as old friends of China. 

Zhang from Peking University’s School of International Studies, told Southern Weekend that’s because people from China and the former Soviet Union were “comrades” and that’s even closer than “friends.” Also, after the diplomatic fallout between the two countries in the 1950s, neither country counted the other as a friend. 

Developing countries that shared similar ideas about anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism are another major source of old friends.

North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung and Cuba’s Fidel Castro were seen as comrades of China because of a shared ideology.

“Before the establishment of PRC and its early years, friends of Party leaders and national leaders were seen as friends to the entire country,” Jia said.

China started to honor leaders of international organizations from 1987. Rafael Montinola Salas, then Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund, was referred to as China’s old friend after he defended China’s family planning policy. 

International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch became a friend of China after helping restore China’s membership in the IOC and supporting its application to host the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Samaranch had a longtime friendship with Chinese table tennis player Deng Yaping who is now deputy secretary-general of People’s Daily. 

Samaranch once said the title “Chinese people’s good friend” is one he cherishes the most.

Friendship Award for foreign experts

In 1991, the State Administration of Foreign Experts also got in the habit of honoring friends of China. It established the annual Friendship Award given to 50 foreign experts who have worked in China. 

State and provincial-level government departments each nominate candidates to create a list from which the 50 are chosen. 

To honor their contribution, foreign experts who receive the Friendship Award are invited to Beijing where they are greeted by national leaders and given a certificate and medal on China’s National Day October 1.

China has given high-profile treatment to some old friends who do not have many international friends. 

“A friend is not necessarily perfect and beloved by everyone. Like (Hosni) Mubarak of Egypt, even though he made mistakes and was ousted as president, China still recognizes his contributions to bilateral ties.

“Richard Nixon was very controversial, but he will always be remembered in China,” Jia said.

The number of official Chinese people’s old friends is on the decline as China offers the mark of distinction to fewer new “old friends.”

“As isolation and the cold war are no longer there, everyone can be a friend now,” said Su Hsing Loh, a China foreign policy researcher with the research institute Chatham House, told the Global Times.

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