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Bernard Edinger samples mao tai and Glasnost à la chinoise

“I felt like Richard Nixon,” says Bernard Edinger who took a group of French defence journalists to China for 11 days in May.

“You may remember that I told The Baron last July that, as a member of the board of the 100-member strong Association des Journalistes de Défense, the French defence correspondents’ group, I had organised group visits since 2004 to the US (twice), Israel (twice) as well as to Germany and to Britain.

These visits are coordinated with the local military establishments and aim at providing stories for our members which take a long time to set up, for example meeting the top US General David Petraeus or going on a night mission along the coast of the Gaza Strip in an Israeli fast patrol boat.

Our visit to China turned out to be the first time that Chinese authorities had agreed to take a group of foreign journalists on a tour of their armies. Some individual foreign journalists had visited specified individual locations in the recent past but we were taken to installations which Western colleagues based permanently in Beijing said they didn’t even knew existed.

Our group consisted of four people; the defence correspondent of Le Monde, a reporter from Assaut magazine, former Reuterian Pierre Tran for US-based Defense News and myself as organiser and stringing for the main French Army monthly Terre Information Magazine.

Among sites or units we visited were the 6th Armoured Division outside Beijing, a helicopter regiment in Sichuan province and the National Defence University in Beijing.

We were also given extensive briefings about such topics as army participation in earthquake rescue efforts in recent years and about Chinese anti-piracy naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden. 

One activity we were not prepared for was the traditional lavish banquets afforded to foreign guests (up to 23 dishes at a banquet given in Cheng-Du by the general commanding forces along China’s southern borders with seven foreign states - he commands nearly half a million men, more than twice the strength of the French and British armies combined).

During these banquets, I was embarrassingly bumped up to the rank of “head of delegation” and had to reply to speeches and toasts accompanied by multiple glasses (fortunately short ones!) of fiery mao tai national drink.

In the picture, I am being welcomed by Major-General Jia Xiaoning, deputy head of the Chinese Defence Ministry’s foreign relations division. Sitting in an enormous armchair listening to compliments being lavished upon our small group while official photographers snapped away, I felt like US President Richard Nixon on his ground-breaking visit to China in 1972. 

But the interpreter sitting behind us wasn’t really necessary because Major General Jia spoke perfect French! Glasnost à la chinoise certainly has its surprises.

Our association tries to avoid our foreign outings taking place too close to one another. But Murphy’s Law struck here and less than 24 hours after my return from China, I was on my way to take another AJD group for a tour of US forces and headquarters in Germany.

The mood there was certainly far different from the Chinese banquets because the most marking moment by far in Germany was to stand outside Landstuhl hospital, the largest American medical establishment outside the United States, when severely wounded GIs, some of them comatose double amputees, were unloaded from buses bringing them from the airport where they had just arrived from Afghanistan. ■