What's the Chinese word for chutzpah?

There's been a long debate about how to translate that fine Yiddish word for "cheek," "temerity" or "nerve." But we got close to a Chinese definition with Foreign Minister Wang Yi's tirade against reporters in Ottawa last week.

Wang Yi announced that it was "prejudiced," "arrogant," "irresponsible" and "totally unacceptable" for Canadian journalists to ask Canada's foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, about China's endless violations of human rights. As an example of chutzpah, Wang's rant deserved a prize.

But wait — the contest is not over. Now, in a nose-stretcher for the Globe and Mail's website, China's ambassador to Canada doubles down in defence of his boss.

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Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui defended his country's foreign minister in a submission to the Globe and Mail. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It is only natural that the two countries may have different views on human rights," says Ambassador Luo Zhaohui. But, he insists, "China faces such differences squarely and never sidesteps them."

Really? The whole point is that China's foreign minister did, indeed, refuse to face such differences squarely and blatantly sidestepped them. So we are nearing peak chutzpah.

Great Helmsman shows the way

Of course, the Chinese probably do have a word for it, and maybe invented it. Even the founding dictator of modern China, Mao Zedong, was only quoting a classical proverb in his famous — and bogus — endorsement of free speech.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend," the Great Helmsman declared in 1956. 

Nice sentiment. Shame about the outcome. Within a year, a purge began and those whose schools of thought contended with Mao's were led away to prison or death. Roughly a half a million of them.

So Chairman Mao had plenty of chutzpah. Indeed, his "hundred flowers" campaign may have been a trap. Later, he bragged that it had "lured the snakes out of their caves" — although he originally claimed it would "promote progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture..."

Sure. Ever since, his heirs have ensured that China's flourishing socialist culture brooks no dissent. Today, under President Xi Jinping, there's another vicious crackdown on human rights — aimed not just at activists but at their lawyers and their families.

Now, stung by the reaction to his foreign minister's outburst, Ambassador Luo claims that Canadians "should not be blinded by such differences" over human rights. He even wants us to applaud the state of freedom in China.

"China has made tremendous and universally recognized achievements in the protection and promotion of human rights," he declares. But he provides no citations for the achievements or for the recognition. Actually, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, it's just the opposite.

'A ferocity unseen in recent years'

Human Rights Watch says the regime "has unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years ... Senior Chinese leaders, perceiving a threat to their power, now explicitly reject the universality of human rights, characterizing these ideas as 'foreign infiltration,' and penalizing those who promote them. Freedoms of expression and religion, already limited, were hit particularly hard in 2015 by several restrictive new measures."

For its part, Amnesty reported last November that "criminal justice reforms hailed as human rights advances by the Chinese government have in reality done little to change the deep-rooted practice of torturing suspects to extract forced confessions. Attempts by defence lawyers to raise or investigate torture claims continue to be systematically thwarted by police, prosecutors and the courts ... Papering over a justice system that is not independent, where the police remain all-powerful and where there is no recourse when the rights of the defendants are trampled upon will do little to curb the scourge of torture and ill-treatment in China."

So the recognition of China's "achievements" is a very long way from "universal." But yet, Ambassador Luo alleges these achievements are "facts." 

"I think any person without prejudice or 'tinted glasses' would recognize such facts," he says in his editorial. "Finger-pointing is not a proper way to treat guests."

But it was Wang Yi who pointed the finger. Nobody pointed one at him — in fact, the question that set him off was put to Stéphane Dion. And while Dion took flak for saying too little, Ambassador Luo presumes to lecture his hosts about saying too much.

"Microphone diplomacy does no good to the control and solution of disputes or differences," he says. "It will only serve to mislead the public, adversely affect co-operation and harm both sides' interests."

This is astonishing. It was his boss who did the "microphone diplomacy" by demanding that Canadians not put fair and factual questions to their own foreign minister.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Chinese President Xi Jinping at last year's G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey. Trudeau will travel to China in August. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Trudeau goes to China 

It might be remembered, then, when Justin Trudeau goes to China in August, that the Chinese have explicitly committed to a bilateral dialogue on violations of human rights. When then-prime minister Stephen Harper visited in December of 2009 — the trip where he was scolded for not coming sooner — the two sides issued a joint statement:

"The two sides agreed to increased dialogue and exchanges on human rights, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, to promote and protect human rights consistent with international human rights instruments."

Harpers on Great Wall

Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his wife, Laureen, on the Great Wall at Badaling, China, in December of 2009. The Chinese agreed to a dialogue on promoting human rights. (Terry Milewski)

If that means anything at all, it means that China pledged to promote the freedoms set out by the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights: freedom of thought, expression and free assembly, as well as the right to "genuine elections" and the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

None of that's available in China. Like Chairman Mao, today's Chinese leadership doesn't appear to mean it.

Which doesn't help us find the word for chutzpah. But how about  厚颜无耻 or hòuyánwúchǐ? Apparently, it means "shameless," which is pretty close.