A list of diplomatic concerns can sometimes read like the complaints list of an OCD fashionista. Amidst talks of climate change, trade agreements and territorial disputes, leaders attending the APEC summit in Beijing this month were also scrutinized from their body language to their fashion choices.
Given the strict rules of etiquette and protocol in diplomacy, it is understandable that those involved would use seemingly minute details to send certain messages. So what was behind the handshakes and tunics in the APEC summit?
One of the traditions of APEC summits is the ‘no tie’ rule; the tradition began in 1993 when Bill Clinton handed out leather bomber jackets in Seattle. From then on each host country provided participants with traditional garments to facilitate a more informal atmosphere.
China provided participants with a silk tunic that was probably modeled on the Zhongshan suit (中山裝). Some observers also likened it to a Star Trek costume— a valid comparison if you look at pictures of both. Indeed, RT even did a video where the Star Trek theme was imposed on footage of the summit’s ‘family photo’. Humorous references aside, the choice of a Zhongshan suit sends a symbolic message. The suit is named after the founder of republican China, Sun Yat-sen, and was a symbol for the pro-republican factions during the last days of the Qing dynasty. Combining Western and Chinese traditions, it was seen by many as a metaphor for China’s modernization. As such, the Zhongshan suit is still a powerful symbol for reform, and its choice as the official attire of the APEC summit speaks volumes about China’s aspirations.
The colour of the tunic is also significant. Most of the leaders were wearing purple tunics, a colour with imperial connotations in Chinese culture. Indeed, the Chinese name for the Forbidden City is 紫禁城, which literally translates into ‘Purple Forbidden City’. The colour purple is a reference to the North Star, which was worshipped as the palace of the celestial emperor in ancient China.
The imperial narrative continues in the photos of Xi jinping receiving world leaders in front of Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and a former imperial garden. This was seen by some as a reference to imperial China, when the emperor would receive guests and their tributes as the ‘benevolent superpower’ of the region. Indeed, Xi and Obama took a ‘walk’ through Zhongnanhai, during which Xi said ‘it was important to learn about China’s modern history in order to understand the Chinese people’s current aspirations and the path forward that they have chosen’.
What should we make of these allusions? Can it be reconciled with the official policy of ‘peaceful development’?
The first thing to realize is that a lot of these references are made for domestic consumption. While the foreign media did pick up on the symbolism behind these actions, the fact that most of these references were based on traditional Chinese culture would suggest it was intended for a domestic audience. Furthermore, the analysis of such symbols were much more prominent in the Chinese media.
The example of the ‘awkward handshake’ between Shinzo Abe and Xi illustrates a similar point—while the handshake was no doubt chilly at best, the subsequent talks between the two leaders led to a resumption of high level contacts and constitutes a major improvement in their lately frosty relations. The handshake, to a large extent, was done for the Chinese public, who would have reservations should their President appear to be too friendly with his Japanese counterpart.
The imperial allusions can also be seen in this light. As such, they have more to do with China’s public self-perception than her actual foreign policy. As the agreements with Japan and the Philippines demonstrate, the latter still remains pragmatic.
Undoubtedly, the Chinese self-perception has moved beyond the ‘victim mentality’ and is becoming more assertive. The establishment of the ‘New Silk Road’—a series of economic agreements with Central Asian countries, harks back to a time when China was quite literally the ‘Middle Kingdom’, a superpower at the center of the world.
The Chinese government is therefore pursuing a dual strategy of pragmatic foreign policy making and domestic posturing. While China is pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy, it is due more to her increasing clout and domestic issues, rather than any particular ideological agenda.
Domestic posturing is ultimately a tool to ensure internal political stability, and in a way, enables the government to pursue foreign policy strategies that may not otherwise be feasible. The logic behind this is similar to Nixon’s visit to China in 1972— only a Republican could resume relations with Communist China as he had the adequate anti-communist credentials domestically.
The effectiveness of such a strategy requires outsiders to see through the ‘smokescreen’ that is domestic posturing. Should other actors assume China’s foreign policy making rationale as ideologically driven, it would pose difficulties towards pragmatic foreign policy making.
China is undoubtedly on the rise, for better or for worse. The results will depend on whether we are able to see beyond the purple tunics strolling through the mist of China’s imperial gardens.
 For an example, see CCTV’s coverage of the summit