I was editing an article about the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation last week. This was inaugurated in 2000, and the fifth of its triennial ministerial conferences between the member states is slated to take place in Beijing this July. [Another good reason to be out of the country this summer. Another reason, indeed, why it may be impossible to stay in the country!]
My author was terribly excited about the special resonance of this 12th anniversary of the organization, taking time out in his first footnote to try to explain how significant the number 12 is in Chinese culture - through the system of the dizhi (地支), or Twelve Earthly Branches, which define the twelve-year cycles of the Chinese zodiac.
So besotted was he with this notion that one of the few concrete suggestions he had to offer on possible improvements to the functioning of the organization in the future was that perhaps a full summit meeting of the participating countries' heads of state might also become one of its regular events... to take place - yes! - every 12 years.
There's only been one such summit so far, in Beijing in 2006, when a big shindig for African heads of state was held alongside the regular ministerial conference. The organization - and China's increasing focus on Africa - began to gain a lot more international attention as a result; but that might not be something China is really all that happy about. And it was, on the whole, a pretty vapid PR exercise. The ministers seem to be taking care of business quite well enough on their own; I doubt if having all the big cheeses along for the ride is going to be all that helpful.
But... if there were some point to this, wouldn't you think it might be a good idea to do it slightly more often than once every 12 years? You know, try to make it fit in with electoral cycles, leadership terms, and medium-term economic programmes? Never mind the poor bloody Africans; I don't think the Chinese leadership is going to be too happy about such a big diplomatic event - with all of its repercussions for trade and energy security and so on - recurring at irregular stages of its domestic Five-Year Plans. Or about the prospect of missing out on one of these media-friendly, 'face'-building events altogether, if the timing was unkind to them (if the China-Africa Forum had kicked off with such a full-scale summit in 2001, and then the next one wasn't due until 2013, the Hu/Wen leadership team would have been bypassed, and thus denied a chance to develop lots of lucrative guanxi in Africa!).
Hm, really - you'd advocate something that cockeyed just because feudal superstition held that 12 was a 'magic' number? You didn't consider that certain contemporary factors might indicate that a 5- or 10-year timeframe might be a more sensible choice for a regular heads-of-state summit?
Footnote 1: My author also tried to tell us that the Chinese zodiac has "twelve animals for each year" (rather than one animal for each of the twelve years in the zodiac cycle; it's lucky I knew better!). That would make for rather a crowded zodiac zoo. I very much doubt if China has 144 different animals (animals, rather than birds, insects, etc.). Well, in fact, Wikipedia says there are about 500; that's far more than I would have guessed - but I suspect most of them are minor variations of small rodent species.
Footnote 2: This risible obsession with seeking to extol the glories of traditional Chinese culture at every opportunity is a facet of China's recent focus on 'soft power'. This very same article included a passage which boasted of the number of Confucius Institutes now operating in Africa and of the increase in the study of Mandarin by Africans, citing this as heartwarming evidence of growing Sino-African friendship. This is yet another reason - one of the main ones, really - why I am reluctant to put much effort into learning Mandarin: I don't want to become another statistic for the CCP to crow about, as they gleefully delude themselves that they have the best damn culture in the world and that therefore, of course, everybody loves them.