Who is Fu Ying ?
Everything you need to know about the Chinese diplomat and former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Fu Ying (傅莹, Fù yīng) is the Vice-Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's 13th National People's Congress. She also serves as the chairperson of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University.
A 2019 report by the Hoover Institution noted that Fu Ying has emerged as a “senior figure in a growing number of US-China interactions,” where she “works hard to structure projects in ways to ensure the best possible outcome from the Chinese perspective.”
Skip to Fu's full background.
Fu began her career in diplomacy in 1978 as a Staff Member and Attaché to the Chinese Embassy in the Socialist Republic of Romania. Between 1982 and 1992, she served as Deputy Head of the Translation and Interpretation Department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, taking a year off to study as a postgraduate at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
After 1992, she served in a variety of roles, including as part of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations (1992-1993), as a counselor to the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department (1993-1997), and as a counselor to the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia (1997-1998).
Between 1998 and 2009, she was ambassador to three countries: Indonesia (1998-2000), Australia (2003-2007), and the United Kingdom (2007-2009). Between 2000 and 2003, she was director of the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department.
In 2013, Fu was appointed Vice-Minister of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Fu graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University with a degree in English and French. In 1985, she recieved a MA in International Relations from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
She also received an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from the University of Kent in 2008.
Madam Fu Ying:
Seventeen days after Joe Biden had been declared the winner of the 2020 Presidential Elections on November 24, 2020, the New York Times published an op-ed with – at first glance – a title that would seemingly appeal to the greatest common denominator across China and America: “Cooperative Competition is Possible Between China and the U.S.” The piece advocated a theoretically attractive, yet practically unprecedented modus operandi between the two largest economies in the world: the path forward, it argued, was – “even if competition between China and the United States is unavoidable, it needs to be managed well, cooperatively.”
The op-ed went on to survey and briefly address the wide range of concerns American firms and politicians held towards China, and reciprocated angst and opprobrium directed towards segments of the West by Chinese citizens and its government. The op-ed was concise, polished, though perhaps frustratingly vague in the eyes of those who had yearned for clean-cut, straightforward answers. In many ways, the article was an anomaly amidst the onslaught of increasingly defensive, reactionary articles written on bilateral relations – it called neither for decoupling, nor for a zero-sum mentality in which only China, or America, could prevail.
Yet it was not just its pithy elegance, or the prestige of the platform on which it was published, or the monumentality of the time at which it was written, that rendered the article a subject of extensive circulation and debate amongst the upper political echelons in Washington and Beijing alike. A critical response termed the author of the piece “the most dangerous woman in China,” whilst the acting Editorial Page Editor of the Times, Kathleen Kingsbury, took to defending the paper’s decision to publish the op-ed against a barrage of criticisms. The criticism, or so it went, was that the Times was platforming an official of the Chinese Communist Party – and, by extension, lending credibility to a member of the government of a prominent rival towards which bipartisan antagonism has emerged in the United States.
Indeed, the article was written by Madam Fu Ying, a former Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, who had once also served as the chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee. A senior diplomat known for her signature blend of empathy and moderate demeanour (and a knack for upholding Chinese Communist Party interests in international negotiations), Fu is a trailblazer that has – since retirement – presided over many of the country’s foremost track-II diplomatic initiatives.
At a time when the international stereotype of the Chinese diplomat has increasingly become one of a bellicose, unyielding, and confrontational “warrior,” Fu serves as a crucial reminder that Chinese diplomacy can be different— indeed, as it has been in the past.
Who is Fu Ying?
Fu Ying was born in January 1953 to an ethnic Mongol family in Inner Mongolia. Her father was Fu Yamin, a local mid-ranking Party official that was tasked with overseeing the propaganda department of the Inner Mongolia military region. He was, in a turn, a disciple of the renowned Yunnan Mongol Marxist theorist and writer, Ai Siqi, whose Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism and Philosophy for the Masses was widely disseminated and perused by generations of revolutionary youth in the early days of the Republic’s foundation. Little is known about her childhood save from the fact that she was a voracious reader, perhaps a habit instilled through her father’s influences. Courting the hearts and minds of Chinese citizens rested at the center of the mantle of the elder Fu – this was, in turn, a task that his daughter took to heart many years later, as she sought to articulate a vision of China palatable and amenable to the international community at large.
The Cultural Revolution indubitably transformed Fu’s life – Yamin was imprisoned under spurious charges, and Fu Ying was “sent down to the countryside,” where she was conscripted into laboring at a broadcast station in Inner Mongolia. She spent three years as a manual laborer and maintenance worker for the local army, and burned the midnight oil while self-studying mandatory subjects for high school.
Many years later, Fu would look back at these years as certainly “treacherous, difficult times… though they were by no means unpleasant.” The hardships Fu endured “enabled [her] to persevere, to cultivate resilience, to willingly embrace sacrifices in order to contribute towards a greater cause.”
In 1972, President Richard Nixon, accompanied by then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, visited China and met with Premier Zhou Enlai. The exchange was a monumental breakthrough in U.S.-China relations, and the resulting thaw paved the way for China’s accession to multilateral, international institutions, and rapid economic rise over the subsequent decades. The following year, Fu was admitted into the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where she excelled at subjects ranging from Mathematics to Foreign Languages. At university, she picked up English and French.
In opting for the English-French pairing, it was apparent that Fu had her eyes set on the world beyond the country’s borders. She later picked up Romanian as a further language – a skill that would take her, upon her joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978, to the Socialist Republic of Romania, a state that was nominally within the Soviet sphere of influence, yet had actively distanced itself from the Warsaw Pact from 1969 onwards. With an increasingly autonomous foreign policy throughout the 1970s, Ceausescu’s Romania was viewed as a state in which China could establish a stronger foothold in Eastern Europe. From 1978-1982, Fu served as an attaché in the Chinese embassy.
In 1982, Fu was redeployed to Beijing, where she served as a junior member of the Department of Translation and Interpretation. She then swiftly rose through the ranks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs throughout the 1980s, with a brief interlude between 1985-6, during which she pursued an MA in International Relations at the University of Kent. The year she spent in Britain enabled her to witness the denouement of the Miners’ Strike, the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and “people talking [about] what would happen to Hong Kong after its return to China,” all events unfolding against the backdrop of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rapidly dwindling popularity. The relatively brief time she had spent in Britain also paved the way for her return to the country 22 years later as the first female Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
With the exception of a brief stint in Cambodia on a secondment to the United Nations in 1992-1993, Fu spent over two decades at the center of Chinese foreign policymaking, honing her craft at liaising between competing interests, ideologies, and clashing views. At a time when the country was caught between advocates of Chinese liberalization and those who felt that China was unduly abandoning its revolutionary ideals, Fu had to strike a delicate balance between upholding an outwardly gregarious, cordial, and welcoming image of China, and addressing the growing uneasiness and angst amongst more conservative populations in the country. After 1989, China faced a crossroads – one between precarious isolationism and recalcitrance, or a return to opening and reform. Under Deng Xiaoping, Beijing opted for the latter. The distinctive climate in which she cut her teeth as a fledgling diplomat certainly contributed to Fu’s emphasis upon communication, dialogue, and frank exchanges as her preferred mode of dispute resolution.
After serving briefly as Minister Counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Indonesia, Fu was promoted to the post of Ambassador to the Philippines in 1998, after which she served as the Chinese Ambassador to Australia from 2003-2007, and to the United Kingdom between 2007 and 2010. As the Ambassador to the United Kingdom (Vice Minister-rank), Fu found herself the public face of the then 1.3-billion-strong population in Western Europe, establishing China’s reputation as a vitalized, expansive, and lucrative site of investment and trade for British firms – especially those who had become increasingly disillusioned with the European Union and the translantic relationship at large.
Whilst most Chinese diplomats are not known for their openness to socializing and fraternizing Fu was distinctively proactive in engaging in conversations, both informal and formal, with members of the British civil society (much to the bemusement or chagrin of Chinese politicians). A visit she paid in October 2008 to Roger Alton, then-editor of The Independent, left the latter deeply impressed about the “candid and forthcoming exchange between Fu Ying and the paper’s editors, which aided them greatly in understanding the Chinese position” [comment translated from Chinese].
In 2009, Fu Ying was appointed Vice Foreign Minister, the first female to serve in this role in 37 years – and the second-ever in history. She was subsequently appointed to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress in 2013 – a Minister-level post, and plausibly the leading advisory position in the Chinese foreign policy hierarchy. This Committee operates differently from foreign affairs committees in the US Congress – the chair of this committee always serves as the spokesperson for the National People’s Congress during its annual session. Whilst she stepped down from the post in 2017, she remained the de facto go-to figure for those seeking an accurate pulse check on U.S.-China relations. As the Hoover Institution put it in a 2019 report, Fu Ying had emerged as “the senior figure in a growing number of US-China interactions” – she “works hard to structure projects in ways to ensure the best possible outcome from the Chinese perspective.”
What does Fu Ying advocate?
Fu Ying’s public beliefs and values are difficult to decouple from her approach to diplomacy on behalf of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party. While many have noted her reputation for communication and serving as a “moderate” voice within the Chinese foreign policy apparatus, such characterizations are unfairly reductionist by construing Fu Ying as the archetypal pacifist, as opposed to the complex and versatile pragmatist that she truly is.
Nonetheless, what does she really stand for in public?
Communication is vital
Fu is known for her (relative) willingness to communicate. She does not shy away from discussing issues often deemed to be “too sensitive” in the eyes of most Chinese diplomats, such as questions over China’s records in labor, human rights, and intellectual property; the country’s fraught relations with its Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong, and the distinctive model of governance adopted by China. As the Chairperson of the China Forum – a coalition of leading think-tanks, entrepreneurs, formal officials, and prominent media pundits on US-China relations within China – and the Chair of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, the diplomat has fronted many of the country’s delegations to high-level international conferences, think-tank symposia, and closed-room dialogues.
Yet one would be mistaken in thinking that Fu views communication as inherently desirable – as scholars Larry Diamond and Orville Schell note, she is “explicit in her desire to cultivate relations with think-tank experts she believes may enter government. Following the election of Donald Trump, she ‘rushed in to see’ one think-tank analyst with ties to the new administration, and a flurry of embassy officials followed. However, when it became evident that said analyst would not be going into the administration, there was no more interest.”
None of this should be surprising. President Xi had repeatedly called upon national think-tanks in China to “go global” as a means of “advancing the Chinese narrative.” More recently, at a recently concluded Politburo session, the Chinese leader insisted upon the importance of “telling the good China story” and “promoting China’s voices on the global stage.” Beijing is acutely aware of the need to adjust its rhetoric and approach to outward-facing communications in order to stall the rising onslaught of criticisms, the skepticism towards its intentions, and to restore international confidence in multilateral flagship projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, which have hit a snags in the past year. Fu Ying may be an internationalist in her tone and rhetoric, but this should be taken as a sign of her adept acumen as a stateswoman, as opposed to an indication of her genuine beliefs and values.
Chinese interests are best upheld through non-confrontational yet firm discourse
In February 2020, during Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s address at the Munich Security Conference, Fu Ying stood up to challenge the Speaker’s rhetoric on Huawei – “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 […] How, if Huawei’s technology with 5G is introduced into Western countries, will it threaten the political system?” In drawing upon China’s successes and relative resilience against the much-maligned “foreign interference,” Fu made her stance incredibly clear – the onus was on the Americans to account for and establish clearly the extent to which Huawei indeed posed a threat.
Whilst many of China’s diplomats have embraced tactics ranging from graphic images, vocal and heated Twitter exchanges, and unreserved castigation of Western politicians for their alleged hypocrisy and double standards, Fu tends to eschew such divisive rhetoric in favor of making her case face-to-face and voice-to-voice. She would not shy away from defending what she takes to be China’s national interests. Yet, she does so in a way that tends to be more understandable and amenable to the ears of Western audiences, especially those who lack strong, pre-existing political predispositions.
A commentator has described Fu as “smooth as silk” – as a “velvet glove wrapped around an iron fist.” Elsewhere, a prominent China watcher has noted that having “read her writings, I do not understand why anyone would call her ‘moderate’ in a Western political framing.” The operative phrase here, of course, is “Western” – in the eyes of senior administrators and party cadres in Beijing, Fu does not harbor what they deem to be unrealistic illusions or romanticized visions of the West. As much as she speaks exceptional English and articulates China’s interests in a manner that is comprehensible and far easier to empathize with on the part of Western spectators, she is also firmly and trenchantly committed to China’s interests. It is this duality that has rendered her a core member of the foreign policy vanguard in China, a rhetorical practice she has maintained despite the seismic tonal shifts by China’s foreign policy personnel over the past decade.
None of this is to say that Fu is intellectually closed-minded or ideologically rigid. She has a comprehensive grasp over complex political realities – in a May 2021 op-ed, she penned her review of a recent European Strategic Autonomy seminar hosted by the Italian Institute of International Affairs, which “provided a chance for [her] to appreciate the desire of the Europeans to further grow ties and deepen their understanding of China.” She further noted, “I also realized that misunderstandings and differences exist between us, which are no surprise given that we have grown out of different cultures and history.” Fu is well-attuned to reasons for which different segments of the heterogeneous West have developed cooling attitudes towards China. She is equally vocal in openly recognising and – to a limited and carefully managed extent – acknowledging the sources of such sentiments.
Whether such empathy would be translated into substantive policy decisions is neither something that Fu could decide unilaterally nor, indeed, a question over which she has been particularly keen to arbitrate. China’s foreign policy has become an increasingly salient policy item on its senior leaders’ table – while no sitting diplomat or foreign policy official sits on the 7-member Standing Committee, Xi has entrusted his confidantes Wang Qishan (previously a member of the Standing Committee and China’s anti-corruption Czar, now the Vice President of the country) and Liu He to take charge of the country’s relationship with the United States. Foreign policy is no longer merely an afterthought to domestic affairs, but an equally if not more important prong of Xi’s tenure. As the country steps up to “struggle” (‘鬥爭’) against its international adversaries, the importance of those who could speak to the anxieties and sentiments of people on the ground in the West would only increase. This is precisely where diplomats like Fu come in. They embody both the proverbial carrot and stick in their advocacy.
Mutually beneficial cooperation between the US and China serves the interests of both parties.
Fu Ying is publicly unreserved in her openness and advocacy that US and China should forge stronger, more resilient, and more comprehensive ties across areas ranging from business, trade, to public health and international security. In an interview published in March 2020, she declared that “all countries in the world are in the same boat” – drawing upon a Chinese aphorism in her emphasis on the importance of multilateral cooperation in face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to criticisms of China for “its response to the coronavirus outbreak, especially by the western media […] accusations that Beijing suppressed the initial information about the outbreak,” Fu remarked that “the media that criticized China have now turned against their own governments […] It’s a huge challenge for any country to come up with the right approach.” In lieu of mutual criticisms and playing the messy blame game, Fu advocated multilateral, international cooperation in resolving the ongoing public health crisis.
Fu is by no means an idealist about U.S.-China cooperation. She is cognizant of spheres where cooperation is impossible, such where the U.S. and China possess diametrically opposed interests or ideologies. She is equally prudent in noting that different modes of cooperation should apply to different bilateral or multilateral relationships. For one, in face of what she terms ‘Westliness’ in her reflections over the Munich Security Conference, she calls upon Chinese diplomats to be more sensitive towards the “prevailing anxiety inside the Western society – worries that the West is losing its dominance in the world order; concerns that the once unified European-American position is being eroded due to the emerging divergences in aspirations and interests.”
In Fu Ying’s worldview, Europe and America should not and cannot be treated as one and the same – instead, they are divergent geopolitical players with an increasingly tenuous partnership. She is of the view that China-Europe cooperation is almost certainly inevitable, and ought to increase over the years to come – even as relations between China and the United States continue to deteriorate under what the Chinese view as American “attempts to subvert the socialist system under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” None of this, of course, necessarily nullifies the importance of cooperation where indeed feasible or desirable.
Ultimately, Fu Ying is a pragmatist. She is a liberal and a moderate when it suits Chinese interests, but she can also be equally adamant and ideologically dogmatic towards the same ends. Her worldview reflects one of a scholar and intellectual-turned-practitioner – someone who realizes the prowess and importance of hearts and minds and seeks to leverage them for the interests of her very own country. To pigeonhole her into specific labels would not only do the “Fu Ying style” injustice – it would also undermine the prospects for engaging with a different and equally valid kind of Chinese diplomacy, one that is rarely placed at central stage these days given the zeitgeist, and yet is equally reflective of the national ethos and worldviews espoused by a substantial proportion of the Chinese political establishment.
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