Yang Chengxu: Making Friends and Winning Hearts

“Diplomats should serve national interests by actively introducing China’s foreign policy and economic development with an eye on local conditions.”
by Hu Zhoumeng
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In May 1988, Zhang Wenjin, then president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), visited Austria. The photo shows Zhang Wenjin, former Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschlager, Yang Chengxu and his wife taking a photo with Chinese and Austrian art performers after a celebration activity in Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of Yang Chengxu
Former Chinese Ambassador to Austria Yang Chengxu at his home in Beijing. by Chen Jian

In the spring of 1988, the popular Austrian radio program Turnier auf der Schallaburg (Tournament at the Scallaburg) featured its first Chinese guest in Schallaburg Castle about 100 miles west to Vienna. He was a diplomat. On the live program, then-Chinese Ambassador to Austria Yang Chengxu had a vivid dialogue with host Rosemarie Isopp. Their back-and-forth drew applause and laughter from some 300 spectators in attendance.

After the show, people across Austria knew of “Chinese Yang.” To Yang’s surprise, he received a letter from Einzi Stolz, wife of the late composer Robert Stolz, which read: “Congratulations on the show. Your performance was the best episode I’ve ever heard. You must have won many hearts.”

“Due to ideological differences, some Westerners had prejudices about China,” Yang remarked. “I considered it a good chance for them to see what a Chinese was really like.”

Extensive Contact and Equal-Footing Exchange

Yang accepted the post of Chinese Ambassador to Austria in September 1985. At that time, as a move to further implement the reform and opening-up policy, Chinese diplomats were encouraged to meet people from all walks of life and introduce China’s policies and stances.

Yang Chengxu posing for a photo with Austrian radio host Rosemarie Isopp at Schallaburg Castle in the spring of 1988. Courtesy of Yang Chengxu 

Before then, Chinese diplomats rarely made contact with local media in the countries where they were stationed. Yang became an exception. He accepted every interview invitation whether for TV, radio, newspaper or magazine. In an interview with Kapital magazine, Yang thoroughly explained China’s progress in reform and opening up and remarked that “China also needs to learn from capitalist countries” in terms of enterprise management and economic development.

“After China launched its reform and opening up, people in the West had a lot of questions about China,” Yang recalled. “Diplomats should serve national interests by actively introducing China’s foreign policy and economic development with an eye on local conditions. But it’s not easy.”

During his tenure in Austria, Yang regularly visited leaders of political parties including the Social Democratic Party of Austria, the Austrian People’s Party, the Austrian Green Party and the Freedom Party of Austria. Yang established intimate relations with them, whether from the governing or opposition parties.

“Sandwiched between Eastern and Western Europe, Austria is a fairly neutral country, which is less impacted by major powers,” Yang added. “I found it easier for the Austrian government to understand and support China’s stances in international affairs. China always defends justice in international society and opposes power politics and hegemony, which has won it support from most countries. Such philosophies matter for China’s diplomacy.”

42-Year-Old “Rookie”

Yang reached a major turning point in his life at the age of 42 when he became a diplomat.

In 1972, the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs suddenly needed more diplomatic professionals who could speak fluent German and understand German culture. The same year, drastic changes happened to international situations. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, China-U.S. relations became normalized and an increasing number of European countries established diplomatic relations with China.

Becoming a diplomat sounded attractive to Yang. “I had studied Germany and its language, literature, history and philosophy in college, and I wanted to learn more about the country. Also, serving my country as a diplomat is an honorable job.”

On July 13, 2013, a group of 20 Austrian secondary-school students learned how to do traditional Chinese dough modeling and paper-cutting at Jiangsu University in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province. The photo shows three Austrian students with the paper-cuts they made. IC
November 26, 2018: Musicians with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra have a friendship ping-pong game at the Tianjin Grand Theater in northern China’s Tianjin Municipality. VCG

Yang’s first stop as a diplomat was the Chinese embassy in the Federal Republic of Germany. Yang found everything fresh. “Advertisements for Volkswagen Beetles were everywhere, but back in China people still used ration stamps to buy food and other commodities. I could easily see an enormous difference between China and abroad before the country launched its reform and opening up.”

Back then, one of Yang’s duties was reading news for the members of the embassy’s Party committee every morning, including local news, developments on China’s relations with the host country and the general international situation. Every day he stayed up late researching a broad range of local newspapers, radio and TV reports to prepare for the next day’s news reading. He still keeps a dozen thick notebooks recording his research from those years.

“I conducted extensive research during my stay at the Chinese embassy. It is quite fascinating and valuable to study the politics, economics, culture and diplomacy of the country where you are stationed. It helps the diplomatic work tremendously.” 

Yang Chengxu was born in 1930 and graduated from Fudan University with a bachelor’s degree in German language and literature. He worked for the All-China Journalists’ Association and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1973. Yang consecutively worked as Minister-Counselor in the Chinese embassy in the German Democratic Republic, Chinese Ambassador to Austria, deputy director-general of the Department of Western European Affairs and director-general of the Policy Research Office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He served as director of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) from 1993 to 2001. Yang also chaired the China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation (CNCPEC) from 1994 to 2005. His published books including International Order: An Observation of the World from 1992 to 2006 and U.S. and Post-WWII World Order: Where the U.S. Is Going in the New Era.