Sino-French Soliloquies

Word counts don’t mean so much at the end of the day, the release of a big article manuscript into the hands of a capable editor should always be grounds for a minor celebration.   It also seems clear that in writing as in life it is good to have a little bit too much of everything — of friendship, of commitments, of food, of music, and of words.

So this morning I woke up and decided to shave — that is, to shave three thousand words off of the end of a piece I have been writing about Sino-French relations in the 1950s and to put it over there. Yes, to submit it, to rend one’s work into the thresher that is the academic journal publishing forum.  Rather than ruminate on word counts though, for fear of disturbing readers who see such statistics as meaningless (another 11,000 words under review? who cares?), I thought some further thinking about the subject and the content might be nice before the prospect of publication of manuscript turns into die ferne Geliebte, which is to say, unattainable.

On Sino-French Dynamics

Why is it that the European press – and particularly the French press – retains such a deep ambivalence toward China?  Since even before the French recognition of the PRC in 1964, China been portrayed as a dangerous violator of human rights, but also as a promised land of perfect socialism and future human development.  If we dig a bit deeper, we can see how the roots of several themes present in contemporary reportage regarding China today in the French press stem from the 1950s.  The individuals who wrote about China in the 1950s in France were an interesting bunch, and understanding their outlooks and their foundational role aids us today in understanding the multiplicity of voices within France, and can help us to trace back these strands of often cacophonous French public opinion today towards China.

One of the most famous depictions of China in France in the 1950s emerged from the studio of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.  This work strongly influenced French views of the founding of the PRC and the end of the old order, and remains an important historical source.  Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an introduction to the publication of Cartier Bresson’s photographs in 1954, crafting a spirited defense of China as a normal country.  Sartre deconstructed the exoticization of previous images of the Chinese in France, and going on to declare, in essence, that the new China was bringing about the end of mankind’s history of poverty.

[See Sartre, preface to CB, D’une Chine a’ l’autre (Paris: Del Pire, 1954); reprinted and translated in JP Sartre, “Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism,” (Routledge, 2006), pp. 22-25.  Interestingly enough, the Sartre compilation is now promoted by the Foreign Languages Press Bookstore in Beijing. ]

That the CCP was being rendered aid by such a distinguished public figure must have come to the attention of the Party, but no documents on him or his visit are as yet available.  He became an increasingly active voice in terms of critiques of French foreign policy in the late 1950s, and the decolonization debate.  He was well disposed to discuss it.  In a short but penetrating essay that appeared as a preface to the text and was often reprinted thereafter, Sartre deconstructed the French image of China.

It seems that French intellectuals were unable to disconnect their support of the PRC, vague though it might have been, with their own desire to end or modify colonialism.  Whether it was looking at the Algeria problem or critiquing French intervention in the Suez Crisis, French leftists could look to the PRC as a bastion of reliably anti-colonial rhetoric and inspiration.  Chinese publications in French (Mao’s Works, etc.) began to trickle into French bookstores and libraries, but such Asian liberation stuff was (likely) seen as anathema by local officials in French cities.  Nevertheless consciousness was expanding in the universities of China and elsewhere.

French journalists and leftists would go to China in larger numbers in the early 1960s.  One, Jacques Jacquet-Francillon, traveled there with his wife to Beijing in 1960, meeting with Deng Yingchao and seeing a parade to welcome Kim Il Sung to the Chinese capital.  [See Jacques Jacquet-Francillon, Chine: A Huis Clos (Presses de la Cité, 1960).]

Jean Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir at a rally in Cuba with Che Guevara, et al, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Today, new sources help us to better pinpoint how the Chinese regime viewed these efforts and the role they played in furthering Sino-French relations (or, one might say more critically, dispersing a sanitized and purely positive picture of China) on multiple levels.  The holdings on PRC relations with France are, in comparison to previously published primary sources in Chinese, vast in the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive.  (The years 1953-1964 encompass 1226 documents directly on the subject of France.)

Tibet in Sino-French Relations

One last subject I wish to examine here has to do with Tibet, a very sore spot in Sino-French relations today.  Paris mayor Bernard Delanoe, a senior Socialist Party member with aspirations to run for President himself from the left in 2012, meets almost every year with the Dalai Lama in visits that invariably bring stern condemnations (are there any other kind?) from the Chinese side.

To what extent did the French give a damn about Tibet in the 1950s?  What was Tibet consciousness like in France prior to, say, the Dalai Lama’s “Strasbourg” speech in the late 1980s?  Certainly there were few French citizens in Tibet in the early 1950s.  One document in the archives from the PRC in 1952 describes the numbers of foreigners in Tibet, indicating that there were more Swiss than any other nationality, and just a handful of French and Germans, hardly enough to constitute a core of any kind of “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

[See PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Beijing, Document # 105-00233-02, 西藏和平解放后英国,法国,印度,德国人在西藏边界活动情况 [Xizang heping jiefang hou Yingguo, Faguo, Yindu, Deguo ren zai Xizang bianjie huodong qingkuang / “Situation of Activities of British, French, Indians, and German people inside the borders of Tibet after Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation”], 1952 [undated]- 31 May 1953, 8 pages.]

The Chinese were far more worried about the Indians, and remain so, when it comes to Tibet, and in the 1950s, to my knowledge, no European countries were actively aiding the Tibetan resistance movement, much less doing so with anywhere near the arms and funds flowing out of Washington into the exile movement and into Tibet itself.  Nowhere yet in my own research – tho I have yet to do a really thorough reading through of, say, Le Monde for 1951 – have I found some alarm bell of an article in the French press calling attention to imperiled Tibetan culture.  In the mid-late 1950s with France, even though the French had nothing to lose, as relations had yet to be achieved during a slight warming trend, no French Prime Minister or President stood up to denounce Chinese “repression” in Tibet.  On the other hand, it seemed, starting in 1955, French leaders were seeking to remove any obstacle they could to reaching the Chinese market.  However, it may be worth investigating further the 1959 Tibet uprising as it was reflected in the French media or among French politicians interested in China.  In other words, if Sino-French relations are going to continue to threaten to tailspin every time the Dalai Lama hits the continent, perhaps an earnest look at the origins of the Tibet problem so far as the French public is concerned might be useful.

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