“Hurt(s) the feelings of the Chinese people”

There’s a funny post here from Language Log, which investigates the most widely-used phrase in the Chinese Foreign Ministry: “The President of [country X] has gravely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people by meeting with [person X].

Spokespersons for the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) often complain that the words or actions of individuals or groups from other nations “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. This is true even when those individuals or groups are speaking or acting on behalf of some segment of the Chinese population (e.g., political prisoners, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong adherents, people whose houses have been forcibly demolished, farmers, and so forth). A typical cause for invoking the “hurt(s) the feelings of the Chinese people” circumlocution would be for the head of state of a country to meet with the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer. A good example is Mexican President Calderon’s recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, which the PRC government denounced in extremely harsh terms. The vitriolic rebuke led one commentator to refer to the PRC denunciation of the Mexican President as a kind of “bullying”.

I should note that the “hurt feelings” meme usually occurs in tandem with other standard kvetching: “grossly interfered with China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and harmed Chinese-XYZ relations.” Clearly, this is formulaic language. What is more, because it is used with such frequency in China’s dealing with other nations, it quickly begins to lose force and meaning, but amounts to mere blather and cannot be taken all that seriously. Still, its sheer ubiquity makes one wonder: why this obsession with damaged sensitivity?

Finding this expression — “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” — so omnipresent in statements emanating from the PRC government, I wondered how it compares with the usage of analogous statements by representatives of other nations.

Here are Google hits for some comparable phrases involving other nations:

“hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” 17,000
“hurts the feelings of the Japanese people” 178
“hurts the feelings of the American people” 5
“hurts the feelings of the German people” 2
“hurts the feelings of the Jewish people” 2
“hurts the feelings of the Indian people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Russian people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Italian people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the British people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Swedish people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the French people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Spanish people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Turkish people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Greek people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Israeli people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Vietnamese people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Thai people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Egyptian people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Tibetan people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Uighur people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Uyghur people” 0
“hurts the feelings of the Mongolian people” 0

As ICT’s Todd Stein pointed out on twitter, how are these meetings hurting the feelings of the Chinese people? The state media is censoring the news, the vast majority of China won’t know about it unless Xinhua kicks up a stink about it. Realistically, we can see that it’s just a useful phrase to use- a specific yet intangible harm caused by the meeting, when pointing out something more real would be impossible. When the head of any state meets with the Dalai Lama, they normally just discuss preservation of Tibetan culture and whatnot, none of the separatism of which Beijing hysterically accuses them of engaging in. “Hurt feelings” then offer an excuse for the Foreign Ministry to be indignant, when they haven’t really suffered any harm.

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