They weep in their beds at night, the Chinese people do, sobbing themselves to sleep. We know this because the Chinese government insists on telling us so. Repeatedly. You can hardly pick up a press release from the Foreign Ministry without learning that the Chinese people have had their feelings hurt by one insensitive foreign country or another.
After a 45-minute meeting on September 10 between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the Tibetan Dalai Lama, for example, a Chinese spokesman declared that Mexico had "grossly interfered with China's internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and harmed Chinese-Mexican relations."
Yes, well, "grossly interfered with China's internal affairs" makes a certain kind of sense, if you really want to insist that your internal affairs include the external countries you've invaded, subjugated, and oppressed. And "harmed Chinese-Mexican relations" is a perfectly intelligible bit of old-fashioned side-choosing: Us or the Dalai Lama? Or, as phrased in what passes for Chinese diplomacy, "We demand the Mexican side adopt measures to eliminate the bad impact and to safeguard the sound and stable development of Chinese-Mexican relations."
But where does that "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" come from? Does a mugger pause in the middle of beating you to try to show you his sensitive side?
The funny part, of course, is that Mexico doesn't actually take up enough space in the Chinese imagination to hurt anybody's feelings. Most Chinese citizens couldn't pick Mexico out of a lineup, and they wouldn't know President Calderon if he suddenly rose from their soup. But Mexico is hardly alone in being accused this way. As the linguist Victor Mair points out, the trope of "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" seems to have become a fused phrase in official Sino-speak, issuing from the Chinese government over 17,000 times, by his rough Google search.
The London Metropolitan University once hurt Chinese feelings. So did the International Olympics Committee, the CIA, NATO, and the European Union. The Vatican has apparently done it a lot. A blogger named FangKC searched the archives of the official People's Daily from 1946 to 2006 and discovered that the newspaper had, at one point or another, denounced at least 16 different countries for hurting Chinese feelings. Another blogger provided a map and citations for 42 countries that have done the same, according to some organ of the Chinese government. Officials in China must have a macro set up in their word processors, the words get used so often—as when the Ministry of Culture demanded that Bob Dylan "sign a pledge promising 'not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people' during his performances."
The phrase has become so shopworn that most of the diplomatic world probably ignores it. But this might be a mistake. The strategy of simultaneously playing both the bully and playing the victim—both the schoolyard thug and the hypersensitive schoolgirl—is one China seems to be using to great effect.
And not just China. This strategy, the having it both ways, may be the ideal anti-Western pose of our day. If the West responds strongly, we meet the delicate flower we have injured, all carefully reported by the world's press. And if we respond weakly, we're introduced to the other kids—the ones who are out to take our lunch money.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.