In China, the trouble with 'country'

One word was all it took for outgoing Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to shoot himself in the foot Wednesday while speaking to 3,000 delegates during the ceremonial transfer of power at the National People's Congress. Mr. Zhu didn't curse or use offensive slang. He accidentally used the word "country" when referring to Taiwan - the island nation that China has considered a breakaway province since their split at the end of civil war in 1949.

I, too, made this inauspicious slip of the tongue - not in the limelight like Zhu, but in the dim fluorescent-green glow of a dingy Internet cafe in Shanghai, the city where Zhu cultivated his political power as mayor. Frustrated by slow connection speeds, I was the only customer in the small shop when the old Chinese storeowner struck up the usual conversation one has with a foreigner in China. "Where are you from? What do you do in China?"

I answered with my standard reply, "I'm American and studying Chinese in Beijing."

After the discovery that I was American (literally, "Beautiful Country Person" in Chinese), the conversation shifted. When locals learn you're American, talk often turns to global politics or military affairs such as US support for Taiwan or what really happened in the spring of 2000 during the US "Spy Plane" incident on the Chinese island of Hainan.

But that night, when the elderly shop owner started asking me my opinion of why the US gets involved in the reunification issue of China and Taiwan - which is what he called a "domestic affair" - I was frankly more concerned about my Yahoo e-mail account not loading than really delving into a serious political conversation. But I had to reply in some way.

So I casually turned to him and shared my opinion: "China is a very big country, and it's developing very quickly to try and catch up with the rest of the world. Taiwan, in contrast, is a very small country and is already extremely developed. Why would the Taiwanese want to reunify with the mainland right now? Give it 10 or 20 years, then everything will be OK."

The old man winced. His eyes wrinkled up with obvious discomfort, and he glanced around. I thought maybe my brashness had offended him, that maybe I'd cut too directly to the point with someone I didn't know.

His mouth broke into an awkward smile and he leaned toward me and in almost a whisper said: "It's OK because you and I are just friends talking here."

"What's OK?" I asked, a bit stumped by his cryptic manner.

"It's OK for you to talk like that and use those words, but if you were up in Beijing you couldn't say those things," he said.

He leaned backward now on his plastic stool, a bit more confident. He sensed that I still hadn't grasped his point. "You have to be very careful what words you use when talking about these things."

And then, with almost a pang of fear, I realized what I'd done. I'd used the word "country" when referring to Taiwan.

"OK, OK," I said, as if rushing to apologize, "small island, small province, whatever you want to call it."

But it was too late. The damage had been done and the old man's point had been made. I, like Zhu, was forced to bite my tongue and backpedal from my infraction.

The outgoing Chinese prime minister, with his upbeat candor and progressive stance on economic reforms, has been one of the most respected and outspoken leaders in an otherwise dull and scripted lineup of Chinese Politburo members. So perhaps his words reveal more of his thinking than just a slip of the tongue.

Taiwan is not simply just another "province" of China, as the state media calls it. It's a fully developed, robust democracy of 21 million people. Taiwan in so many ways is, in fact, just like a country.

Steven Harris is a freelance photographer and journalist who has lived in Beijing since 2000.

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