Free Coffee for North Korea?

An Internet Meme Explodes

What should China do to persuade its moody ally North Korea to comply with international restrictions on its nuclear ambitions?

“Free conference rooms, free coffee, free soft drinks and dessert,” was the surprising and quickly viral Internet-meme-of-an answer from Ruan Zongze, the Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies, a Chinese think tank, speaking on February 12 on China Central Television (CCTV).

“China has always insisted on denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and the international community has consensus on this issue,” Ruan said about 18 minutes into the video below, which drew nearly 400,000 viewers in two days on web portal Sina’s video channel alone.

With a brief, faint smile, Ruan was referring, of course, to the fact that since 2003 China has played regular host to the Six-Party Talks, providing (what else?): “free conference rooms, free coffee, free soft drinks and dessert.”

Netizens instantly jumped at the chance to lampoon Ruan’s glib catalog of failed Chinese diplomatic entreaties. Or did they see that he was in on the joke?  Who can say?

“China’s no longer considered reliable [by North Korea],” mocked user @爱_自_由_ “Only Western desserts on the table without a hint of kimchi during the break at the Six-Party Talks. What the hell?! And only coffee to drink? This is ridiculous! I’m out!”

Netizen @GAGA亲亲 recounted her two-year-old daughter pointing at the “expert” (Mr. Ruan) on CCTV and asking, “What’s this big fat guy talking about, Mama?” Her reply? “He bought free drinks for others but in return was threatened with a big bomb!” To which her daughter replied: “So, is this guy a Coca-Cola salesman?”

User @5星级上将詹姆斯下士 reacted thusly: “Holy crap! Are you telling me that we can achieve universal peace by offering a one-stop spa and sauna service?” “Why were we beaten to a pulp? Because there were no free refills of the free coffee!” wrote @曾匀 “Details are everything!”

Twinning concerns over North Korea with those about the recent spate of bad “weather” in Beijing, user @蔡荣画_5ae wrote “China has also provided free polluted air for the Six-Party Talks!”

The thinly-veiled anger reflected in Weibo posts after Ruan’s digital gaffe hints at newfound public concern that China pumps millions in grain and fuel into North Korea but gets no respect in return.

“People always said China and North Korea have a traditional friendship,” said Ruan’s host on CCTV’s talk show Focus Today, starting at a point just before the eighteen-minute mark in the video. “China’s selflessly provided massive aid to North Korean development for a long time. But what we are seeing now is that North Korea took the grain with one hand and pressed the nuclear button with the other.”

Netizens were less polite. User @杨小华199 wrote, “Finally, we see why [the late North Korean leader] Kim [Jong-il] didn’t care about China: because we are tea boys!”

User @李冰冰, the award-winning Chinese movie actress Li Bingbing, a co-star with Jackie Chan and Jet Li in “The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008) and an ambassador for Korean Culture in China, shared a mock conversation between the two old Communist allies on her Sina Weibo page. Her post promptly was reposted over 45,000 times and drew over 8,000 comments:

North Korea: Old Bro, I’m going to conduct a nuclear test!

China: When?

NK: Five!

China: After five days?

NK: Four!

China: Four days?

NK: Three!

China: Exactly when?

NK: Two!

China: … two? Are you being stupid?

NK: Go!

China: We’re trying to stop North Korea at the last second!

Ouyang Bin is an Arthur Ross Fellow at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society in New York and Associate Editor of ChinaFile, where his major interests concentrate on China’s political...
Zhang Xiaoran graduated from the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Peking University. She is currently a graduate student in the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Columbia...




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