The new face of Chinese diplomacy: Who is Wang Yi?

China appointed Wang Yi, one of China’s foremost experts on Beijing’s major regional rival, Japan, to the post of foreign minister.

Jason Lee/REUTERS/File
Wang Yi, then director of China's National Taiwan Affairs Office, waves to see Chen Yunlin (not in picture), chairman of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, off to Taiwan from the Beijing international airport, in this file photo.

Wang Yi, China’s newly-named foreign minister, has a reputation as a brilliant and urbane diplomat. He is also a wily negotiator with some tricks up his sleeve.

Ten years ago he was trying to persuade the Americans to sit down alone with the North Koreans for talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, as North Korea wanted. Washington refused, and insisted that the Chinese be present.

After a day of fruitless to-ing and fro-ing in Beijing, Mr. Wang hosted a banquet for the three negotiating teams. Halfway through the dinner he and his deputy stepped out – to the toilet, they said.

Over the next 10 minutes, one by one, all the Chinese diplomats slipped surreptitiously away from their banqueting tables. Before they knew it, US negotiators found they were in a de facto bilateral meeting with the North Koreans. 

The Americans declined to talk about anything substantive, and Wang’s ploy failed, according to Japanese author Yoichi Funabashi, who recounts the incident in his book “The Peninsula Question.”

But the sly maneuver illustrates what one acquaintance calls “the subtlety and flexibility” of Wang’s approach to diplomacy. 

“His expertise, his judgment and his style” will lend him authority, predicts Paul Evans, a professor of international relations at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “He will be more than an implementer; he will be a shaper.”

Unlike his two immediate predecessors at the head of the Foreign Ministry, Wang is not a US specialist, although he spent six months at Georgetown University in the late 1990s and speaks good English.

He speaks Japanese, however, like a native, according to people who know him well. Wang has spent his career in Asia and is one of China’s foremost experts on Beijing’s major regional rival, Japan, with whom Beijing is currently locked in a fierce territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

“It is a signal to the region that they are putting an Asia specialist in the job,” says Professor Evans.

“His knowledge of Japan is deep, but he is not necessarily soft on Japan,” adds Evans, who once hosted Wang at a dinner in his home, and has met him often since. “He is a firm Chinese nationalist.”

'Learning from the peasantry'

Like many of his generation now rising to the top of Chinese politics, Wang was a “sent down” youth, spending eight years during the Cultural Revolution working on a farm in northeastern China, “learning from the peasantry.”

“He did not waste his time,” recalls Wang Xiaoping, a classmate of Wang Yi’s at university in Beijing where the two studied Japanese. “He had studied literature and history by himself.”

Wang Xiaoping (no relation to the foreign minister) remembers his classmate studying harder than most others and being “quite open minded. He did not just accept what he was told – he had his own ideas.”

On leaving university, Wang Yi joined the Foreign Ministry. He came from an unremarkable family but married into foreign policy aristocracy: His father-in-law had been Premier Zhou Enlai’s top foreign affairs aide.

He has a reputation for modesty, though. At a recent Chinese New Year class reunion, Wang Xiaoping says, “I thought we would talk about his next job, but he didn’t raise the issue and neither did anybody else.”

Popular choice

Wang is also said to be popular in the Foreign Ministry, which he left five years ago to head the Taiwan Affairs Office. “I think he will be welcomed back to the ministry,” says Wang Yusheng, a former Chinese ambassador to Nigeria and Colombia.

Former classmates, colleagues, and others who have come across Wang agree that the man is exceptionally intelligent. “He has an incisive intellect,” says Evans, “probing and piercing … with an ability to see an issue from two or three different angles.”

Wang has clearly been a high-flyer from his early days in the Foreign Ministry, appointed to the number three job in Beijing’s Tokyo Embassy within 10 years of leaving university, and later becoming the youngest deputy minister on the roster.

He later became China’s ambassador to Japan, where he further cultivated his contacts. Given the tense state of Sino-Japanese relations “he is the right man for the job of minister,” says Wang Xiaoping, who does business in Japan. “Japanese politicians and officials know him. He can get information directly.”

“If there are problems going forward” between China and Japan, adds Evans, “it will not be for lack of understanding of Japanese signals.”

Though Wang is the new face of Chinese diplomacy, it will not be his hand on the tiller. Above him in the foreign policymaking hierarchy will be Yang Jiechi, promoted last weekend from foreign minister to state councilor. And all key decisions are made by the ruling Communist Party’s Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, of which Wang will be just one member.

“Wang Yi will follow the policy set by [newly installed President] Xi Jinping and China’s new leadership,” says Wang Yusheng.

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