Fang, Ph.D.

Communication researcher

In the Media

I appear frequently in international media outlets, discussing issues related to media, journalism, digital technology, as well as Chinese politics and society.

Southern Weekly: Who are “old friends of the Chinese people”?

August 2, 2013Kecheng Fang0 Comments

There is such group of foreigners, whom most Chinese citizens have never met. But once their names are mentioned, almost every Chinese will be automatically conditioned to label them as “old friends of the Chinese people”.

Edgar Snow, Norodom Sihanouk, Henry Kissinger, Joseph Needham, Juan Antonio Samaranch are some of the most well-known ones in the list of “old friends”.

“When Chinese deal with diplomatic relations, they incline to proceed from feelings or relationship, and blush to talk about interests. Therefore, the title ‘old friend’ emerged as substitute,” says Zhang Qingmin, professor of School of International Studies at Peking University.

The author researched the People’s Daily database from 1949 to 2010, in hope to find answers to the following questions: Who were officially identified as “old friends of the Chinese people”? Where did the friendship come from? And how did the Chinese government and the Chinese people treat our friends?


In the past 62 years, 601 foreigners were crowned with “old friends of the Chinese people” inPeople’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC). They came from 123 countries of five Continents. In other words, “old friends” were all over the world.

It was the year of 1956 when the title “old friend” first went to Canadian James G. Endicott. He dedicated himself to China’s education, and supported Chinese revolution throughout.

However, most of 601 “old friends” received this title after 1977. The frequency hit high for the first time in 1979. Zhang Qingmin explained, “Old friendship is particularly needed in the period of fully resuming diplomatic relations or difficulties coming out.”

Looking into the nationality, Japanese topped the list of “old friends”, up to 111, which is nearly twice as many as Americans in the second. British, French and German ranked third to fifth.

Meanwhile, Japan and U.S. also took the first two places when search “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” in the same database.

In Zhang Qingmin’s point of view, the most “old friends” implies the most important diplomatic relations. Among great powers, Russia is the only country where “old friends” hardly appeared. “It is because that China once established comradeship or brotherhood with former Soviet Union, which is closer than friendship. Later as relations between the two states deteriorated, the title of “friend” was also unnecessary.

Some “old friends” came from certain small countries, such as King-Father Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, and two faithful pals from Africa: former Tanzania President Mwalimu Nyerere and former Zambia President Kenneth David Kaunda.

While in the process of realizing normalization of relations between China and Japan, some Japanese played a vital role. Occupying a large part of Japanese “old friends”, they were added another title “well digger in the normalization of relations”. Entrepreneur Kaheita Okazaki was most widely admired and mentioned 22 times. In addition, Japan prime ministers were listed as “old friends” much as well. 10 Presidents out of 14 from 1972 to 1996 got the title.

In fact, political leaders held the most proportion of total 601 “old friends”. Except for the pioneers in the relations like Henry Kissinger and Richard Milhous Nixon, “old friend” would be given to state leaders who visited China for several times.

At the same time, “old friends” also distributed in the fields of economic, culture and so on. It was the old friends from fields of sports and arts who drove forward the legendary “Ping-Pong diplomacy” and “Ballet diplomacy” in Chinese modern history.


The very first “old friends” usually shared a common feature that all of them had been to Yan’an, Mecca of Chinese revolution. They fought with Chinese against Japan and then became “old friends of the Chinese people”. Some Soviet aviators went to war to defend Wuhan. The captain of this air force therefore was titled “old friend”.

Doctors accounted more than soldiers in the list. Not only the most well-known Canadian Henry Norman Bethune, but other doctors from India, Romania, Bulgaria, Argentina, America, Britain and so on save lives in China’s battlefield where they forged a profound friendship with Chinese.

In the years of war, “old friends” foreign correspondents reported events of mysterious China and informed revolutionary movement led by Mao Zedong to the world. The most celebrated three of them, Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley were known as “3S”. The special organization “Smedley-Strong-Snow Society of China” was set up in 1984, in which Deng Yingchao held the position of honorary president and former China Foreign Minister Huang Hua took president. It was renamed “China Society for People’s Friendship Studies” afterwards.

Similar to those foreign correspondents, Dutch director Joris Ivens was crowned with “old friend” since he documented the positive story of CPC fighting Japan. He filmed the documentary “The 400 Million” in 1939; the 50 years long friendship between Chinese and Ivens sprouted out from then on. He had asked some friend to present his hand-held camera to Yan’an Movie Studio. It is now in the possession of National Museum of China.

Some foreign friends of CPC leaders were also called “old friends of the Chinese people”, although they had never visited China in revolutionary time. French engineer in agronomy René Dumont made acquaintance with Cai Hesen and Deng Xiaoping, when they carried the work-study programme in France during their early years. The acquaintance then led to friendship.

With the dawn of peace times, judging an “old friend” relied more on whether in the same vein or not. Chinese found their friends with the marks of anti-imperialist, anti-colonialism and anti-aggression. “Old friends” from socialist camp and Third World countries showed up consequently.

Nevertheless, if one made contribution to China’s development or assiduously propagated its achievements, he would be drawn into the list despite that his motherland was not that welcomed. The Author of “The Chinese Economy” (Published in 1957), American Solomon Adler was such an example.

In 1970s, almost every political leader or common people were placed on the list of “old friends” as long as they contributed much in the wave of establishing and resuming diplomatic relations. Political leaders like former Mexico President Luis Echeverría, who voted affirmatively for restoration of China’s lawful seat in the United Nations, were looked upon as close friends particularly.

From 1987, another group of “old friends” appeared. They were leaders of international organizations. Former first head of the U.N. Population Fund Rafael M. Salas was listed first. According to People’s Daily, Salas consistently and strongly supported China’s one-child policy. “When very few foreigners viciously attacked on China pushing ‘forced abortion and sterilization’, Salas always came forward and denounced in the statement.”

Later, these people joined the list, including former Executive Director of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund James P. Grant, former Secretary-General of United Nations World Tourism Organization Antonio Enriquez Savignac and former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In the era of reform and opening-up and early market economy of China, old friends emerged in economic and trading field. Those who developed trade with China in spite of strong opposition were much more admired.


The Chinese sage Confucius says, “It is always a pleasure to greet a friend from afar.” The PRC government is never niggardly with the most courteous reception to their “old friends”.

Meeting and dining with senior leaders seemed to be an ordinary entertaining way. Old friends from culture fields without any political post would talk and have dinners with Chinese leaders, as long as deep friendship existed, taking director Joris Ivens and writer Han Suyin (original name Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow) as examples.

Actually “old friends” living in China might meet state leaders regularly every year. They were usually invited to Spring Festival Reception in the Great Hall of the People, held by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC).

For those friends advanced in age, it is routine to congratulate their birthday to maintain friendship. Political leaders visited and feasted them for celebration in the Great Hall of the People. For example, former Chairperson of the CPPCC National Committee Deng Yingchao once had a family feast for Japanese “old friend” Saionji Kinkazu to celebrate his 80th birthday.

If “old friends” didn’t live in China, the president of CPAFFC or leaders of the same rank would go abroad for celebration. State leader Wang Zhen had visited Okazaki Kaheita on his birthday in Japan, in name of honorary Chairman of China-Japan Friendship Association. A ceramic plate imprinted with Chinese character “shou (longevity)” from Deng Yingchao was taken as present as well.

When state leaders visited other countries, they would often schedule a time to meet “old friends”. Former General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Hu Yaobang had interviews with journalist James Munro Bertram twice during his visit to New Zealand in 1985. What’s more, Hu welcomed him back to Yan’an.

Chinese government even invited “old friends” to cure diseases in Beijing, not only greetings. In the year of 1938, Indian Doctor B.K. Basu came to Northern China and travelled around to save lives for nearly five years. As nearly half a century passed, Chinese repaid him in a similar way: Basu was invited to get treatment in Beijing.

Chinese profound friendship in “old friends” was infectious. Former Chairman of International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch has ever said that no other awards in his life but the fact that Chinese treating him as “old friend” was most valuable.

Meanwhile, Chinese government harbored high expectation on royalty of these “old friends”. “In our opinion, friends should never disappoint us. To hurt China’s essential interests means hurt our feelings most seriously.” Zhang Qingmin says.


Some “old friends of Chinese people” became Chinese citizen indeed. For instance, Poland correspondent Israel Epstein was naturalized in China in 1957 and joined the CPC in 1964. He also held a position in Standing Committee of CPPCC from 1983 till his death in 2005.

Most “old friends” lived in their motherland, or kept their nationality even live in China.

Many “old friends” have passed away. Obituary notices have been printed in People’s Dailyin some periods since 1985, as the most dignified treatment. State leaders sent messages of condolences when some important friends passed away. Besides, Chinese might read the articles commemorating 100 years formal birthday of “old friends”. Of course, the title “old friend of the Chinese people” was never missed.

After death, ashes of some old friends with fond feelings for China were buried here as their last will, some ashes of Edgar Snow on the Weiming Lake in Peking University, half of Louis.Rewi Alley’s into Shandan, Gansu Province, and Canadian James G. Endicott’s to his birthplace Leshan, Sichuan Province, for example.

However, other old friends still move in the political arena at home and abroad. But some have been stuck in troubles recently, of which former Egypt President Mubarak was the most typical one. He was reported 10 times by People’s Daily as “old friend”. Another thing to be mentioned is that, unlike what the rumor indicating on Internet, Libya leader Qaddafi never received the title of “old friend of Chinese people” officially.

Since 2003, the frequency of the phrase “old friend of Chinese people” in People’s Dailydecreased dramatically, from 50 times to 20 times each year.

Zhang Qingmin though it reflected the process of adjusting diplomatic tactics. “With the trend of pragmatic and internationalized diplomacy, China’s tactics conformed much more with international practice, the original meaning of “old friend” fade out gradually. “

Coming to January and February 2011, when the title “old friend of Chinese people” came up only twice in People’s Daily, King of Spain Juan Carlos I and President of Organizing Committee of 7th Asia Winter Games Anatoly Kozhekenovich Kulnazarov took it respectively.

(Originally printed in Southern Weekly [in Chinese], March 3rd, 2011. Written by Fang Kecheng.)