Fu Ying's fame as one of China's most successful female diplomats may have faded since she left foreign service a decade ago, but on Friday the 67-year-old found herself in the public spotlight yet again.
Rising from the audience of the Munich Security Conference, the chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, posed a question directly to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives and one of the most vocal critics of China's human rights records.
"China, since its reform started 40 years ago, has introduced all kinds of Western technologies … and China has maintained its political system. It is not threatened by these technologies," Fu said. "How, if Huawei's technology with 5G is introduced into Western countries, will it threaten the political system? Do you really think that the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by this single hi-tech company of Huawei?"
The unusual direct exchange between a Chinese diplomat and one of the United States' best-known politicians underscores the active and calculated presence of China in the Bavarian capital, as it tries to counter mistrust from European and US policymakers, most pointedly over 5G mobile technology.
Previously, when serving as China's ambassador to Britain, Fu led the condemnation of pro-Tibet protests that repeatedly disrupted the global torch relay preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Here at the Munich conference, one of the leading forums for transatlantic security issues, Fu also co-hosted a side event on AI with Eric Schmidt, chairman of the US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.
Qin Gang, the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, hosted a small event on China's measures to halt the coronavirus outbreak, which has largely overshadowed the conference and had a serious impact on China's economic activities with other countries.
Their presence left Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who headed the delegation, to focus his energy on his historic meetings on Friday, including one with Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States.
The meeting highlighted Beijing's intention to seek closer ties with the only European sovereign state that is diplomatically allied with Taipei. Vatican News, which often reports the Curia's official position and broke the news, said "a meeting of this kind had not taken place in 70 years".
Wang also met Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), amid Nato's increased concern over the influence of China, which in December was discussed during a leaders' meeting for the first time in the group's 70-year history.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the Munich conference, revealed in his introduction before Wang's speech that it was the Chinese foreign minister who made the decision "a few years ago" that "high-level" Chinese representatives would be sent to attend the annual conference.
He also thanked Wang for making his trip despite the coronavirus, for which, he said, China deserved some compassion.
Despite Wang's eagerness to attend, however, transparency was lacking in most of the events involving China's participation. Wang, for instance, did not open the floor to other participants for questions after he finished a keynote speech filled mainly with coronavirus updates and multiple expressions of praise for the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
That contrasted with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, whose speech - in English - focused on an Asian perspective of Western values such as democracy and human rights, followed by questions from the moderator and other attendees.
Kang, Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India's Minister of External Affairs, were treated by the Munich Security Conference as representatives from "the West" - whereas their Chinese and Russian counterparts gave speeches about their "non-West" positions.
Diplomats watching China's contributions did not fail to notice a changing geopolitical focus, with more emphasis on showing national unity during the coronavirus outbreak and countering US pressure in the 5G arena, and less on China's transcontinental infrastructure strategy the Belt and Road Initiative, which was left unmentioned in Wang's speech.
"This is quite intriguing," a diplomatic source said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this was because the initiative has given rise to too much negative connotation."
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