Porcelain bumping

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I learned this term from an important article by David Bandurski in today's (10/17/18) The Guardian, "China’s new diplomacy in Europe has a name: broken porcelain:  Beijing’s message to Sweden and beyond – criticise us, and we’ll topple your agenda – won’t win it any hearts and minds".

The relevant Chinese expression is pèngcí 碰瓷, which literally means "bump porcelain" (think pèngpèngchē 碰碰车 ["bumper cars"]).  How did pèngcí 碰瓷 ("bump porcelain") become embroiled with diplomacy and international politics?

Bandurski explains:

Pengci refers to the practice of manufacturing drama to obtain a desired outcome. According to one explanation, the term was coined to describe a technique used by fraudsters who would wait with delicate porcelain vessels outside busy markets and demand payment when these shattered, ostensibly due to the carelessness of others. Now, pengci often refers to the act of throwing oneself into oncoming traffic in order to claim compensation – a practice so common in China that related compilations of clips online are now nearly as ubiquitous as cat videos.

A comparable expression in English would be "staged crash", a type of insurance fraud.

Pèngcí 碰瓷 ("bump porcelain") was originally a Peking colloquialism referring to a ploy used by criminals to defraud innocent bystanders by involving them in staged damage of artwork or other types of property.  In its current incarnation, the Beijing government has seized upon this tactic as a means to embarrass and coerce other governments into bowing to China's will.

Currently, the most salient instance of this kind of Beijing browbeating is focused on Sweden, where China is expressing its displeasure over Stockholm's recent welcoming of the Dalai Lama to Sweden and trying to distract attention from genuine human rights abuses such as the disappearance and torture of the Swedish scholar and book publisher, Gui Minhai (Michael Gui).

Unfortunately, Beijing's staged histrionics are so ridiculous and phony (Bandurski describes a number of recent examples in Europe) that people are seeing right through them.  Consequently, the CCP's pèngcí 碰瓷 ("bump porcelain") gambits are boomeranging right back at them.

Bandurski concludes:

The pattern is clear. When it comes to foreign criticism of the Chinese government, or to the strategic issues it cares about, we’re all tiptoeing through a china shop now. The danger is that such histrionics could make European governments, universities, scholars and journalists, to remain silent, retreat from issues likely to prompt an outburst. Europe must send a message that it welcomes free, open and calm discussion of all issues, and that it will not suspend its values or the rights of its citizens to appease China’s official bouts of anger. If we refuse to indulge such tactics, China’s government will eventually come to understand what many of its citizens already know – that you don’t win hearts or minds through intimidation.

In a word, "broken porcelain" = "broken diplomacy".

[h.t. Alexander Browne]


  1. Ethan said,

    October 17, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

    Bandurski is also riffing off the phrase "like a bull in a china shop".

  2. Christopher Rea said,

    October 17, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

    碰瓷 – 《蒙提·派森的飞行马戏团》版:


    "You've got a nice army base here colonel…we wouldn't want anything to happen to it."

    – Monty Python

  3. cameron said,

    October 17, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

    Probably more pertinent than the "staged crash" insurance scam is the broken glasses scam, or broken bottle scam. These were in the news quite a bit here in New York about ten years ago, though the scams are, of course, ancient.

  4. John Houlihan said,

    October 18, 2018 @ 8:02 am

    Churchill supposedly described John Foster Dulles as a bull who carried his own china shop with him.

  5. ajay said,

    October 18, 2018 @ 8:04 am

    "Now, pengci often refers to the act of throwing oneself into oncoming traffic in order to claim compensation – a practice so common in China that related compilations of clips online are now nearly as ubiquitous as cat videos."

    A risky business. If you kill someone by reckless driving in China, you have to pay (fairly sizeable) lump sum compensation. If you merely cause them life-changing injury, you have to support them for life, which can add up to a lot more. Hence the number of incidents (also often recorded on video) in which a Chinese driver hits someone accidentally, knocks them down, and then reverses back over them to make sure.

  6. KeithB said,

    October 19, 2018 @ 9:01 am

    When I first saw the blog title, I thought it was about a euphemism for vomiting.

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