On Monday, February 28, 2022, the Department of State press spokesman addressed a question relating to “Narnia National Day,” an issue that will become clear below.
Earlier that same day, Wang Wenbin (汪文彬), the press spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “this morning, the Meeting in Commemoration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Shanghai Communique was successfully held in Shanghai.” The meeting was attended by Politburo Member Li Qiang (李強) who delivered the keynote speech. State Councilor Wang Yi (王毅) also delivered a video address from his offices in Beijing. Councilor Wang “expounded on the ins and outs of the Taiwan question,” the foreign ministry spokesman helpfully explained. All extolled the “wisdom” of the “Shanghai Communique.” Spokesman Wang Wenbin droned on for ten minutes about the commemorations and the speeches and the historic meaning of the historic “Shanghai Communique.”
Later, in Washington, D.C., as global attention focused on Ukraine’s heroic defenses against a full-blown Russian invasion, it seemed that the Fiftieth Anniversary of the “Shanghai Communique” had slipped by unnoticed.
Or did it?
On February 28, the hundreds of China-expert journalists, academics and think-tankers across the country and around the globe who subscribe to the State Department’s press release email list no doubt were likewise expecting some fresh view of U.S.-China Relations prepared by the Department’s “Office of the Spokesperson” to mark the solemn occasion of the Communique’s Golden Anniversary. As it happened, the State Department issued 26 press releases on February 28, mostly relating to Ukraine, but also covering routine issues in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, cybercrime, Yemen, plastic pollution and, last but not least, Dominican Republic Independence Day.
But nothing on China.
Hence it happened that Ned Price, the mischievous, fun-loving but somewhat droll spokesman for the United States Department of State could not suppress a smile as he was interrogated by Matt Lee, the Associated Press’s veteran diplomatic correspondent on February 28.
Very little gets by Mr. Lee who virtually monopolized the press questions that day – yet, his colleagues were content because Mr. Lee always does his homework and always elicits interesting responses from department bureaucrats. On that Monday, in particular, Mr. Lee assiduously probed Mr. Price on sanctions against Russia and other aspects of the newly-erupting Ukraine crisis.
However, at the very end of Mr. Price’s hour-long session, Mr. Lee politely but abruptly shifted focus to “non-Ukraine questions.”
Now, here I will pause to reflect that, in my forty years of dealing with journalists, I have found that the good ones, the professional ones, the knowledgeable ones, generally hit you with a surprise at the end of their interviews, sometimes even after the interview is over, to elicit an unguarded comment or two. I suspect Matt Lee has adopted this tactic as a matter of habit, no guile or trickery behind it. And I suspect Mr. Price, equally professional, was ready for it.
So, this is how it unfolded according to the video and the transcript from the State Department website [and keep in mind that the comments in brackets are my observations] [https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-february-28-2022/#post-318773-CHINA]:
“MATT LEE: Okay. One: today is the day [here, the video shows Mr. Lee as he strikes his desktop with his ballpoint pen thrice to emphasize the words “today is the day”], today is THE anniversary — the 50th anniversary — of the Shanghai Communique. Did you guys make a conscious decision to snub the Chinese or to just let this one go by?”
“MR PRICE: Matt, there are many anniversaries [here, the video shows Mr. Price attempting to stifle a smile] that go by without a ... “
“Mr. LEE: ... I know, but this is a significant one.”
“MR PRICE: ... without a statement from the State Department. It doesn’t in any way mean that we are trying to diminish the historical meaning or importance of an anniversary. [Mr. Price is in full tongue-in-cheek mode] I know you look forward to our statements on every occasion, but sometimes —”
“Mr. LEE : Well, okay, but it just seems —”
“[UNIDENTIFIED COMMENT FROM GALLERY]: But you’ll have a statement on every occasion!”
“MR. LEE: You do! I mean, the national day of Narnia you guys put out a statement on, [general laughter] but … but … but this is a pretty big deal, or at least it was 50 years ago. So, I just want to make sure that you’re intentionally NOT recognizing the anniversary.”
“MR PRICE: [Smiling] I am not aware of us having any plans to issue a statement, but I wouldn’t read more into it than that …”
This exchange leaves no doubt that Mr. Price and the State Department were, indeed, “intentionally NOT recognizing the anniversary.” It seems that, as a matter of national policy in 2022, the “Shanghai Communique” is seen throughout the U.S. government as passe. Indeed, note that Ned Price was prepared for the question: “there are many anniversaries that go by without a statement from the State Department,” Mr. Price said, “it doesn’t in any way mean that we are trying to diminish the historical meaning or importance of an anniversary.” It was almost as if he were saying: “Anniversary? I can’t keep track of them all, there are so many, they happen every year! But just because there’s no State Department press release about some particular anniversary doesn’t mean we don’t cherish it and value its historical meaning or importance.” Note too that Mr. Price refused to utter either the name “Shanghai” or the noun “communique.”
Certainly, no one in the State Department can be more aware than spokesman Price of the tedium of issuing press releases by the score on all the diplomatic minutiae which the Department must cover. Which is why Mr. Price added the droll observation, “I know you look forward to our statements on every occasion.” And none on the receiving end of those scores of daily press releases are more jaded by them than the journalists, there assembled, in the Department’s briefing chambers. Which is why Matt Lee interjected: “... But you DO make a statement for every anniversary ... even Narnia National day! [laughter] and, besides, this was the 50th Anniversary! ...” Every member of the press in the room got the joke.
“I’m not aware of any plans to issue a statement,” Mr. Price said with a gnostic smile, as of to advise “read into it what you will.” Alas, Matt Lee did not report the State Department’s omission. No doubt he has been busy enough keeping up with Ukraine — and Narnia.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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