BEIJING. China's Ambassador to Malaysia donned a bright red batik shirt when he toured Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown for Mid-Autumn festivities, but the mood that followed his walkabout was anything but cheery.
Dr Huang Huikang's comments sparked a diplomatic spat which divided Malaysian politicians and the public, highlighting the clout that China wields in the country and the risks this could bring for Malaysia and the region.
To recap, Dr Huang visited Chinatown, or Petaling Street, on Sept 25, just over a week after a pro-Malay "red-shirt" rally rife with anti-Chinese rhetoric was held nearby. Another red-shirt demonstration was due the following day.
At the walkabout, the ambassador told journalists that China opposes "any form of discrimination against races and any form of extremism". While China pursues a policy of non-interference, it "would not stand idly by" when its citizens' interests or Malaysia-China relations are infringed.
Given China's increasing economic and military muscle, accompanied by shows of assertiveness in recent years, Dr Huang's blunt comments alarmed officials in Malaysia and the region, alerting them to potential Chinese interventionist notions.
The fallout was swift but convoluted, exposing divisions within Malaysia's government.
Dr Huang was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for "interfering in domestic affairs", then told he did not need to be summoned, and then he finally met the Acting Foreign Minister.
In between, ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) ministers took potshots at each other for overstepping boundaries.
An Umno deputy minister threatened to "slap" Chinese Malaysians who took their complaints outside of the country, triggering demands from Chinese BN politicians for him to apologise.
Behind the scenes, China flexed its muscle to get its way. Reports and sources said Dr Huang lobbied Malaysian ministers and Tan Sri Ong Ka Ting, a former Malaysian Chinese Association president and special envoy to China, not to be summoned.
Analysts told The Straits Times that it was unlikely that Dr Huang would have spoken out of turn, without getting approval from the authorities higher up. Despite earlier reports that he had read from a statement in Petaling Street, Dr Huang said he was responding only to a question from a journalist.
But if it was indeed a slip of the tongue, no apology came forth for the oversight. Dr Huang insisted his comments were read out of context and that "no person of clear mind" will say he is interfering in domestic affairs.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also made no redress. Its spokesman, Mr Hong Lei, defended the envoy, saying the visit was a "normal" activity and that China does not interfere in other countries' domestic politics.
China's discrepancy in word and action makes such statements ring hollow. Dr Huang's comments and subsequent lobbying serve to only increase suspicions towards its routine pledges of peaceful co-existence.
Intentional or not, Dr Huang's comments are a misstep for China, which should adopt more care with such remarks in future.
Traditionally, China has strong ties with Malaysia. This has been fostered for decades by an established network between businessmen and clan associations, as well as people-to-people exchanges in culture and education.
But while there are segments of Chinese Malaysians with strong links or even leanings towards the land of their ancestors, many other Chinese Malaysians do not share the same inclinations. This group would not have appreciated Dr Huang's remarks, no matter the context, given that they will serve to only increase the suspicions of the Malays. Worse, they will provide ammunition for red-shirt types to lash out at minorities, who are already being labelled pendatang (immigrants) who should go back to their country of origin.
Thus the Malaysian government finds itself in a difficult position, one that could put the bilateral relationship at risk unless it manages to rein in the red-shirt elements.
Dr Huang's comments would also have raised concern among other ASEAN countries, given China's historical habit of claiming ethnic Chinese overseas as its own. Such misgivings will only increase now with China's growing assertiveness and ambition.
But this episode also brings up important lessons for Malaysia.
Its government must realise that it had allowed this opening because of its own weak response to increasing racial polemic. This culminated in the provocative rally outside Petaling Street, which included posters threatening Chinese Malaysians who took part in the Aug 29 to 30 Bersih rally "to be ready to be bathed in blood".
Instead of speaking up against the demonstration, Prime Minister Najib Razak - whose 1Malaysia slogan is barely heard these days - praised it for being "peaceful" and warned that Malays "can rise up when our leaders are insulted".
Against this backdrop, pockets of Chinese Malaysians who would not otherwise align themselves with China may have found a reassuring voice in Dr Huang.
Many Malaysian officials and commentators have said they hope this episode will blow over quickly, as ties with China - the country's largest trading partner - take on added significance because of Malaysia's slowing economy.
It remains to be seen how China's increasing clout in Malaysia will affect bilateral ties, having already divided Malaysian officials in this incident. For now, both countries have their part to play, if they wish to get their special relationship back on track.
This article was first published on October 9, 2015.
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