[Then, unrestricted by the confines of government and academia, he spoke out, a rare act in a time of decreasing tolerance for those who dissent, colleagues said. “He had the moral courage to speak out,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.]
By Jane Perlez and Yufan Huang
Wu Jianmin, a longtime diplomat who warned against rising nationalism in
China, in 2008. Credit Imaginechina, via Associated Press
BEIJING — From his start as an aspiring diplomat in China’s Foreign Ministry in 1959 to his days as an ambassador in Paris and Geneva, Wu Jianmin represented the best of his country’s diplomacy: firm but reasonable, gracious but not unctuous.
In retirement, he became an unusually outspoken advocate for China’s remaining open to the outside world, warning that the nationalism that had grown under President Xi Jinping should be kept in check.
Mr. Wu, 77, was killed in a car accident last weekend, and his death has reignited a debate over how China should conduct itself abroad.
At his funeral in Beijing on Friday, a delegation of more than 20 officials from the Foreign Ministry, led by the executive vice foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, paid their respects. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, would have been there had he been in the country, a ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said.
“I have never seen a public figure whose death made so many people sad and made so many people euphoric,” said Liu Yawei, the director of the China program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Mr. Liu described Mr. Wu as a diplomat who could stand up to “the accusations that he was a coward because he advocated peace.”
Mr. Liu was at a conference at Peking University about China’s news media and its relations with the world when participants were told that Mr. Wu had been killed in a crash after his driver struck a median strip in Wuhan, in Hubei Province, last Saturday.
The sponsor of the conference was Global Times, the state-run newspaper that Mr. Wu had criticized for its stridently nationalistic views. Murmurs of shock rippled through the audience at the news of his death.
Mr. Wu had been candid about his distaste for the publication, saying editorials that urged the military to show more spine and take more action in the South China Sea, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbors, were wrongheaded.
In an interview last year, Wu Jianmin said that China does not seek domination of the South China Sea.
Video by BBC HARDtalk
Mr. Wu had taken on the newspaper’s editor in chief, Hu Xijin, accusing him in a speech in March of making a “mess talking about the world” and of not understanding how the world worked. In return, Mr. Hu called Mr. Wua dovish diplomat who did not know what was good for China.
Soon after Mr. Wu’s death, hawks in the debate flooded Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
An Air Force senior colonel, Dai Xu, wrote that the former ambassador was “ignorant, arrogant, bad mannered and grumpy.” Colonel Dai, who teaches at the National Defense University, also criticized Mr. Wu for being “like a pet dog to foreigners” but “like a wolf dog’’ when dealing with Chinese.
Mr. Wu was a familiar figure to Americans involved in China policy.
In 1971, after serving as an interpreter in French for Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, Mr. Wu arrived in New York in the first batch of Chinese diplomats assigned to the United Nations when China took the seat previously held by Taiwan.
“He is the epitome of an excellent public intellectual: deeply committed to his country, yet extremely thoughtful and nuanced in his analysis of it,” said Jan Berris, vice president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, who knew Mr. Wu from those early days.
Mr. Wu gradually moved up through the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and after several ambassadorships became president of the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, retiring in 2008.
Then, unrestricted by the confines of government and academia, he spoke out, a rare act in a time of decreasing tolerance for those who dissent, colleagues said. “He had the moral courage to speak out,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
At Mr. Wu’s funeral, a reporter for Phoenix Television who was live streaming from outside the hall interviewed a man in civilian clothes who said he was in the military.
The man praised Mr. Wu for understanding that China was in danger of retreating to the closed mind-set of the Qing dynasty and that it needed the outside world.
He added: “Don’t put that on the record.’’
Follow Jane Perlez on Twitter @JanePerlez.