Little tricks: how China’s response to Trump’s Taiwan call got lost in translation

The call with Tsai Ing-wen caused a diplomatic furore. Jorge Adorno/Reuters

Unpredictable US President-elect Donald Trump again shocked the international relations establishment when he talked with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen on the phone; the call was brought to the limelight by the Financial Times last Friday.

The conversation was first reported to be initiated by pro-Taiwan staff in Trump’s transition team, then was said to be initiated by Tsai, as claimed (or exclaimed) in Trump’s ensuing tweets.

Whoever made the first move, the call broke with 37 years of China-US diplomatic protocol that US accepts and respects “One China” policy. No US President or President-elect has ever called a Taiwanese leader in recent decades.

News media in the US and the rest of the world followed with breaking news and in-depth analysis, deeply perplexed by the sudden call while speculating on a possible furious reaction from China, and a possible diversion in China policy from US.

But the translation of China’s eventual response may have confused matters further.

China’s response

While any change of US foreign policy during Trump’s presidency may be vague and unpredictable, China’s reaction can be less unpredictable. The New York Times Beijing correspondent Chris Buckley, while awaiting an official response from China, posted on Twitter:

And so China did. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply offered a brief but very Chinese comment in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, describing the call as Taiwan’s “xiao dong zuo” and affirming that the “One China” policy will not change.

A signal for diversion in China policy? A personal business interest move? Or simply being too unrestrained? The Western media tried hard to decipher Trump’s real intention behind the call. But here I want to focus on how English-language media translated and reported the subtle phrase from Wang Yi.

‘Little trick’

“Little trick”, or xiao dong zuo in Chinese, means dishonest or improper behaviour in a hidden, stealthy fashion, often carrying malicious intention. Mao was reported to have blamed his political opponents or allies whom he saw as a threat (Lin Biao, Gao Gang, to name a few, both of whom were later purged) for “xiao dong zuo” on several occasions.

In gaming parlance, the opposite of “xiao dong zuo” is playing cards on the table. In the case of Trump-Tsai call, Wang Yi was smart to use this very Chinese saying to convey Beijing’s stern, yet ambiguous stance. Blaming Taiwan for the call and reiterating the “One China” policy is forceful. But Wang Yi stayed ambiguous as to how angry China is and what action it would take.

Given the fact that Trump has not assumed office yet, it was wise of Beijing to avoid harsher comment and target Taipei. The ambiguity gives Beijing more flexibility in the future.

When translating China’s official response into English, China’s state news agency Xinhua used “little trick” in its English language reports, while China’s state broadcaster CCTV and the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily used another version: “petty action”, which is actually the closest literal translation of “xiao dong zuo”, as xiao means petty, whereas “dong zuo” is action, in its most literal meaning.

But compared with “little trick”, calling something a “petty action” downplays the intention of the accused and the anger of the accuser. Many English-language news organisations, including the Financial Times, the New York Times, Reuters, the Washington Post picked up the CCTV version.

On the other hand the Xinhua version of “little trick” was cited in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, the BBC, NPR, the Telegraph, and Quartz.

Other media have their own understanding of “xiao dong zuo”. CNN had its translation as “a shenanigan”; and the Singaporean Straits Times put “petty gambit” in their report. In both cases, China’s response is not as downplayed.

On Twitter, China correspondents seem to be scratching their heads over a better translation.

It is unclear why certain outlets chose the downplayed version. But what is clear is that, xiao dong zuo, translated into either “petty action”, “little trick” or “shenanigan”, does convey quite different signal as to China’s attitude.

If “xiao dong zuo” were understood as “little trick”, rather than “petty action”, one would expect a formal stern complaint from China to ensue, which it did.

At least Taipei, speaking the same language, has no difficulty in getting what Beijing was hinting at.

Lost in translation

Mistranslation by the media, or translation lost in cultural difference, is not a new feature of delicate international relations.

In 2006, CNN reported that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran had a right to “use nuclear weapons”, when in fact what the Iranian president meant was “nuclear energy”.

Though the “petty action” or “little trick” difference may not be as grave as that between “nuclear weapon” and “nuclear energy”, in a diplomatic context, you can never be too careful in picking the most accurate interpretation of a diplomatic statement.

At this stage it might be hard to convincingly offer any solid interpretation about the intent of this unprecedented Trump-Tsai call. But the implications are significant, judged from any side.

While China is wrestling to make sense of the call, the world is trying no less hard to make sense of China’s response. The sweeping coverage of international media outlets tells a story of a global order where no one would like to see an infuriated China, especially with a Trump leading the US.

A proper understanding of each side’s response demands more focus on a contextual translation, rather than a literal one, from the media.