28 June 2011

The Chinese people's premier: Wen Jiabato speaks

Back in February, I made the point that you don't need to speak Arabic to tell that Mubarak isn't much of an orator - which has been illustrated by several more video clips from speeches in Arabic since then.

The recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabato the UK has now given us a few rare glimpses of a top Chinese politician speaking and, though I understand not a word of the language, his delivery is a reminder of much the same point.

In a caption to a picture of the young Fidel Castro in my book Our Masters' Voices (1984, p. 4), I'd written: '
Skillful public speaking can be readily recognized even in those whose politics we may disagree with, and whose languages we do not understand.'

The earlier
blogpost on Mubarak continued as follows - but could just as well have been prompted by this speech from Mr Wen:

What fascinated me then - and still does - is the fact that we don't have to be able to understand Spanish or German to be able to recognise that Castro and Hitler were highly effective orators.

The opposite is also the case: you don't have to be able to understand Arabic to be able to tell at a glance that Egyptian President Mubarak is a long way from the Premier League when it comes to public speaking ...

The rise of the ineffective orator
Much the same can be said of other second and third generation revolutionary leaders. Compared with Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki was a bit short in the communication skills department. So too were Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev in comparison with Lenin (and I don't speak Russian, either).

The point is that, once a new order is established, behind the scenes committee work, plotting, befriending the right people, bumping off or otherwise disposing of rivals, winning support of the right factions and organisations , etc. become far more important than being able to appeal to a mass audience of people whose votes will determine your rise or fall.

Nor, if you can get to the top job - like so many leaders of Arab nations outside Egypt - by being the favoured relation of the previous head of a ruling family, do you have to worry about anything so tiresome as being able to move, persuade and inspire mass audiences.

The quietly spoken people's premier?
Having watched Mr Wen in action, I was intrigued to see that the
Wikipedia entry on him actually singles out the way he speaks as worth a mention:

"Soft-spoken and known for his strong work ethic, Wen has been one of the most visible members of the incumbent Chinese administration, and has been dubbed 'the people's premier' by both domestic and foreign media."

Soft-spoken, yes - but as for whether he deserves the title 'people's premier', I confess to having a few doubts.


marion chapsal said...

Max, I like the new international trend your blog is taking. Forgive me if it's not a new trend, but it seems to my neophyte eyes like it!

I agree with you that Wen Jiabato's delivery is very different than what we're used to in the Western world.
Does it mean that he will not be able to influence Chinese people?
I am not so sure...
If there's an international understanding of what charisma means, we need to be careful not to interpret it with our own filters.
I don't speak Chinese either, but I've been training Chinese Executives and MBA students. One thing is certain, we cannot apply any universal grid in terms of intercultural communication and we may learn a lot from the differences in communication styles.
What may be looking like a lack of charisma may be perceived completely differently from someone who has actually lived and worked in the country. The economy of gestures and smile, the softness of the voice may hide subtle range of micro intonations that totally escape us.
This is just my humble opinion, Sir Max!

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for this, Marion.

If the blog seems to be becoming more international, it is, I'm afraid, purely accidental and probably reflects the continuing shortage of interesting speeches in the UK!

I agree that a lot of intonational and gestural subtleties must be passing us by when we watch speeches in languages we do not understand, just as I believe that much of what gets glossed as 'cultural differences' derives from subtle but noticeable details - e.g. you may remember my outrageous suggestion from a while back that the allegedly
extensive use of gestures by you Latin speakers might have something to do with the the fact that your languages have more longer words (and hence longer turns) than Anglo-Saxon and Nordic languages.

But my main point here - and in relation to most of the previous clips from speeches in Arabic - is that effective public speaking is pretty much irrelevant in societies where audiences and voters have no part to play in determining which leaders get to (and stay at) the top - as in China and a depressingly large number of other countries around the world.