How Chinese Diplomacy Is Different From American

My experiences at the embassy level

America is Sri Lanka's biggest trading partner, but China just raised this whole-ass city out of the ocean here.

America and China have very different approaches to diplomacy. You can see this at the embassy level. You can see it in the people they send. I've dealt with both Chinese and Americans in Sri Lanka and these are my experiences. In short, China adapts to us. America expects everyone to adapt to America.


Steve or Dan or Jeff was the cultural attache at the American Embassy. He emailed me one day, because I was a blogger I guess, and we met. They abducted my phone at the door and we talked about free speech. I ended up having dinner with him and his now husband.

I use multiple names because I can't remember, but also because he could be anybody. I think he went to Turkey or somewhere else next. He didn't speak Sinhala or Tamil and I never met any Americans that did. The Embassy had local staff to interact with most local people, but the actual staff were resolutely American.

Jeff and the Embassy crowd were 'expats' (expat being the white word for migrant worker). Them and the NGO types would drive around in diplomatic cars to bars and restaurants, down South, integrating loosely with Colombo's English-speaking society. He would end up talking with people like me, who were like him, but I am very unlike most Sri Lankans.


The Chinese guy I knew was named Kasun, which immediately tells you something. He had studied the Sinhala language for years before coming here and even used a Sri Lankan name. His day job was working at a radio station that the Embassy ran which I tuned into and it was nuts. It was all Chinese people, but doing the news in Sinhala (and Tamil). This shows you something about the Chinese attitude.

Kasun called me because I ran a food review website and he wanted me to visit his friend's restaurant. I wanted to see how Chinese people actually ate so I went.

Sri Lankans eat Chinese food like it's rice and curry. Kasun showed me how Chinese people eat in courses, not just mixing everything with the rice. I honestly prefer it the Sri Lankan way but it was good to know. We ended up going out a few times for no particular reason.

Kasun and I were an odd couple because he spoke excellent Sinhala while mine is terrible. We confused the hell out of waiters, this Chinese guy fluent and the brown guy struggling. But that again shows you the Chinese attitude.

Chinese diplomatic schools train people in every obscure language before sending them out. And their bench is deep, enough people to staff radio stations and just speak in our languages all day. Instead of hiring locals that knew Chinese, they just learned what we spoke here. It's a completely different sort of diplomacy.

The Differences

As you can see, China meets us where we are. They are their own translators and communicators, and they're capable of listening without a go-between. I don't know if it goes up to the Ambassador level, but they don't rely on local staff in the same way as Americans. They go local.

America is America. They send regular Americans who connect with Americanized people like me. I'm not saying they don't have people that know local languages, but I never met them. In my experience they rely on interpreters and local staff for most actual work, and that staff of course get abandoned if shit hits the fan.

What does this mean? Well, you can just see the different attitudes. America projects its culture out while China adapts to the culture it's in.

You can see this in policy. America tells us what and how to develop (and doesn't actually fund much) while China just gives whatever our leaders want. America is tells us how to govern (unless we have oil or a military base) whereas China just works with whoever's here. China has some level of understanding, which seems to lead to restraint, whereas Americans are ignorant and think everyone should be like them.

This is not to say that China is benign, but they're not belligerent like America. They're not actively occupying, bombing, or besieging anywhere, which is a lot. I guess they're belligerent towards, like, Taiwan (which they consider part of China), but they don't fuck with random countries like us.

As you can see at the Embassy level, America makes very little effort to learn about anyone else, which is why they misunderstand China so much. They think China will be an aggressive superpower like them, but China is completely different. China pursues its interests within other cultures, it doesn't project its own culture on them. China will work with whatever terrible government you have, but they won't aggressively (and sanctimonously) try to make you like them.

You can understand these differences geopolitically, and you can also see them on the ground. The American Embassy is very much American territory, they speak their language and tell people what to do. China, on the other hand, speaks our language and don't say much at all. These are completely different approaches to diplomacy. That's been my experience, having had tea with both.