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Celebrating life of Li Shengjiao, a legendary diplomat, scholar, educator and litterateur

MONDAY marks the first anniversary of the death of Li Shengjiao (1935-2017), one of China’s most important diplomats.

Li was celebrated as “an outstanding diplomat, scholar, educator and litterateur, who made extraordinary contributions in multiple fields.” He was also appreciated and well recognized by late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai for his talent.

The diplomat was a leading authority on international law and China-US relations. He made a great contribution to the creation and implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and did a lot in the establishment of the diplomatic ties between China and the US.

Li was one of China’s first generation of diplomats who engaged in UN diplomacy, serving as Counselor of the Chinese Mission to the UN. He attended a multiple of significant international negotiations, including China’s boundary negotiations with Myanmar, India, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the former Soviet Union, as well as the UNCLOS from 1972 to 1982.

In addition to all of the above, Li was an all-round sports star, distinguished poet, bilingual author, sinologist, historian and an expert on “I Ching,” who was widely recognized as “an envoy connecting Chinese and Western cultures.”

Born in 1935 in Nanjing, Li grew up in Shanghai. His father, Dr Li Linsi, served as Chiang Kai-shek’s diplomatic adviser and was a co-founder of the China branch of the UN. The senior Li was a well-known educator and diplomat during the Republic of China period (1912-49) who enjoyed equal fame with Shanghai diplomat Gu Weijun (1888-1985).

Shanghai was the place where his father, known as China’s Mahatma Gandhi, initiated the legendary “nonviolent resistance” campaign against fascist aggression and the starting point for his life.

Li witnessed some of Shanghai’s darkest moments and the struggles his father waged during the Japanese invasion. These painful experiences cultivated his patriotism and guided him in later life to follow in his father’s footsteps and fight for his country as a diplomat.

An athletic star

With a great family tradition and remarkable natural talent, Li was able to write antithetical couplets at the age of 6 and compose poems at the age 8. When he reached his teenage years, he had been capable of writing beautifully both in English and Chinese while speaking with a pure British English.

As a student, he was not only academically brilliant, but an all-rounder.

Before he graduated from middle school, he had already made a name for himself as a soccer player in Shanghai.

“Shengjiao was a star in Shixi High School,” recalled Li Zechun, Li’s high school classmate and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. “He distinguished himself not only in high grades, but also in athletic talent. He was well-known across Shanghai for his basketball and soccer skills.”

In the following years in Nanjing University, Li went on to become an all-around sports star, excelling in soccer, basketball and track and field. He was selected to be a regular member of the Nanjing soccer team, as well as a key player in the Nanjing University basketball and soccer teams, and represented the city of Nanjing in several national matches during his college years.

He also finished his English-language autobiographical novella, “Shanghai Memories,” and the English translation of the masterpieces of his ancestor Li E, a leader in poetry in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

According to Wang Ying, Li’s classmate at Nanjing University and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Li was widely regarded as “a leader of tomorrow.”

“He had excellent grades and his English was marvelous. He was exceptionally handsome and extremely good at playing basketball. He was then the brightest star of Nanjing University,” Wang reflected.

Not only was Li considered a rare talent by Nanjing University professors, he also caught the attention of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The ministry reserved a position for him even before his graduation. After he graduated with flying colors, the foreign ministry appointed a representative to invite him three times. He was then 21, the youngest in the ministry. Interestingly, he was a rare breed, who joined the foreign ministry without being either a Communist Party member or a Communist Youth League member.

Li began his diplomatic career in 1956 and did extensive research on China’s border and ocean affairs. His researches received high recognition from China’s top leaders in 1960.

Diplomatic career

During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), Li was sent to rural areas to work with farmers on several occasions, and his father died miserably back then. However, throughout the turbulent times, no matter how hard life was, he always supported and sided with Premier Zhou and had a strong faith in the Party.

“Li Shengjiao was both an excellent diplomatic official and a professional expert who had a good command of the English language and solid expertise in foreign affairs,” recalled Tang Wensheng, former English interpreter of Chairman Mao Zedong and Li’s former colleague at the foreign ministry.

After China resumed its lawful seat in the UN in 1971, Li engaged in a series of major diplomatic activities and negotiations with the UN, including the 10-year-long United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1972 to 1982, which resulted in an international agreement that has had profound influence on global politics, economics and security. Li was a major contributor to the creation and implementation of the UNCLOS.

He also participated in a series of significant diplomatic events, including China’s ping pong diplomacy, former US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US.

Former Chinese Ambassador to Luxembourg Shi Yanhua and his husband, famed diplomat Wu Jianmin, had known Li for more than 40 years since the early 1970s.

“Li’s work ethic and capabilities were respectable,” Shi recalled. “He was very articulate and insightful and had a good eye for detail.”

Shi said her husband often talked to her about Li, saying he was career-minded and was a man of decency and high professional competence.

Former Chinese Ambassador to Russia Wu Tao described Li’s as “genuine and industrious,” saying that “Li was a modest, self-disciplined gentleman, honest and diligent.”

Li frequently showed up at international diplomatic events and negotiation meetings. Well-versed in both Chinese and Western cultures, together with his scholarly bearing, personal charisma, native English and solid expertise, he earned respect from representatives of other countries for both China and the Chinese people.

In 1987, Li was appointed as Acting Chinese Ambassador to Barbados and later first Deputy Consul General of China in Toronto. He did a fair amount of tangible work during his tenure and was loved and esteemed by the overseas Chinese.

“As a diplomat, he won honors for his country and united the people,” said Wang Ying.

Key role in foreign affairs

As an expert in the foreign ministry, Li played a part in the investigation and study of some major issues on international situation and China’s foreign policy and offered advisory opinions to the Central Committee in helping the nation’s diplomatic decision-making.

His research results have had profound influence. Li was an off-stage contributor to some of the most important events and decisions in contemporary China’s diplomatic history, such as China’s resumption of its lawful seat in the UN, the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the US, China’s signature of the UNCLOS, China’s entry into the WTO and Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Olympic Games. He was a real behind-the-scenes hero.

After retiring from the diplomatic position, Li remained as a consultant to the foreign ministry and was invited as an honorary professor at China Foreign Affairs University and Nanjing University. He shifted his focus to cultivating a new generation of diplomats and fostered a number of high-end talent.

Consul General in Johannesburg Ruan Ping, a disciple of Li, once recalled affectionately: “We’ll never forget that it was Li Shengjiao who coached us along the way. He will forever be our most venerable mentor.”

“Mr Li contributed a lot to China’s diplomatic cause as well as international law and treaty affairs,” said Huang Huikang, a member of the UN International Law Commission. “He will be remembered forever by people in the international law and treaty community all over the world.”