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The Chinese have elephantine memories. They may forgive their foes but they never forget their friends. This explains the cordial welcome extended on 5 May by the Chinese ambassador Nong Rong to the Leader of the Opposition Mr Shehbaz Sharif so soon after his release from official custody.

He spoke of Shehbaz Sharif’s "Punjab speed" fame in China and lauded ‘Shehbaz's hard work as Punjab chief minister [as] very impressive and praiseworthy.’ Then, the ambassador invited him to attend the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party in July, telling the reporters and the government: ‘Beijing does not forget its friends.’


Historians will recall China’s steadfastness in honouring former President Richard Nixon even after his resignation over Watergate, because he had opened the portal into the US’s bête-jaune the People’s Republic of China.


Exactly fifty years ago, in 1971, Dr Henry Kissinger (then Assistant to President Nixon on National Security Affairs) flew from Rawalpindi to Beijing and spent three days in secret negotiations with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Having reached Beijing courtesy Pakistan, Dr Kissinger proposed to Zhou Enlai that the USA and the PRC should establish ‘a secure direct channel’ between themselves, one ‘that would not be vulnerable to the bureaucracies or developments in a third country’ (i.e. Pakistan).


Zhou Enlai waited, and responded on the following day with the suggestion that ‘we continue to pass some non-substantive notes through President Yahya who had been a good friend.’ He added: “We have a saying in China that one shouldn’t break the bridge after crossing it.”


On learning about Kissinger’s visit, the Indians were livid, especially because Kissinger had stopped in New Delhi and said nothing before coming to Rawalpindi.  Some years later, an Indian High Commissioner made the grudging acknowledgement that the Pakistan Foreign Office had outsmarted its Indian rival.


Dr Kissinger was more effusive in his praise. Writing a letter of thanks to President Yahya Khan on 26 July, his compliment read: ‘The skill, tact, efficiency with which your officials carried out my secret mission were nothing short of brilliant.’ He added: ‘Ambassador [Agha] Hilaly’s part in this operation vividly demonstrated why he has compiled so remarkable a diplomatic career’.


Dr Kissinger is still alive and although in his dotage, he might nevertheless be surprised to learn of the public flagellation by our prime minister of a younger generation of the same Foreign Office. No one would challenge the responsibility of the prime minister to remind government officials of their duties, especially when they are in direct contact with their compatriots, whether here or abroad. But demeaning our country’s representatives cannot but diminish their credibility and utility in the eyes of their host countries. 


The efficacy of ambassadors is dependent on the support they receive from the government they represent and upon the goodwill they are able to establish during their postings. One wonders, therefore, how the Saudis will regard our career diplomat ambassador Raja Ali Ejaz after his castigation, days before the visit of our PM to Saudi Arabia.  


Former PM Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs recounted an anecdote about a stranger in London’s Whitehall asking a Britisher on which side was the Foreign Office. He received a startled response: ‘Well, I hope on ours!’ Our bevy of ambassadors, after their virtual meeting with the PM, must wonder who is on which side.  


Every ambassador strives to ‘well-serve’ their country, like ambassador Hilay did. Not all have the good fortune, however, of David Ormsby-Gore, UK ambassador to the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. He was asked for specifically by President Kennedy because of their previous friendship. It grew closer both professionally and personally. After Kennedy’s assassination, Ormsby-Gore maintained an all too intimate contact with the Kennedy family. Recently, letters from him to Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline have revealed that he proposed ‘a secret marriage’ to her. She refused, and married the Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis instead.


More recently, Donald Trump, then President-elect, asked British PM Theresa May to appoint his maverick friend Nigel Farage as UK’s ambassador to the US. The Prime Minister’s Office reminded him that Britain already had an ambassador in Washington. ‘There is no vacancy,’ was Downing Street’s droll reply.


As this month of ritual fasting comes to an end, it might be beneficial to admit to ourselves at every level that none of us is better than the best of us, and none better than the worst of us. Islam teaches us that, and Ramadhan provides a timely reminder.


Today, of all days, some lines from the pen of Oscar Wilde spring to mind: ‘Surely there was a time I might have trod/The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance,/Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God’. 


Praying this Covid-Eid, expect to encounter long queues.




[DAWN, 13 May 2021]


13 May 2021
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