Wang Yang tells US treasury secretary that China-US relationship is like a marriage – but not a gay one

Among the ranks of China's poker-faced, ancient-proverb-citing political elite, the country's vice-premier, Wang Yang, has emerged as an unlikely champion of the extended metaphor.

Wang told the US treasury secretary, Jack Lew, that the China-US relationship was like a marriage. Only not a gay one. And hopefully, nothing like Rupert Murdoch's.

"In China when we say a pair of new people, we mean a newlywed couple," Wang said on Wednesday, sitting side-by-side with Lew at a high-level meeting in Washington. "Although US law does permit marriage between two men, I don't think this is what Jacob or I actually want."

According to Reuters, Lew "briefly smiled down at his notes" while members of the Chinese delegation "squirmed" at Wang's joke, an oblique reference to the US supreme court's landmark ruling in support of gay rights last month.

Lew and Wang are co-chairs of the fifth China-US strategic and economic dialogue, two days of typically staid discussions between the leaders of the world's two largest economies. Both came into their positions this year.

While Wang's overarching message – that the two countries, despite their differences, must learn to get along – has become standard in Sino-US talks, his delivery revealed an uncommon enthusiasm for bucking convention. "We cannot have a divorce the way Wendi and Rupert Murdoch just had," Wang continued. "For that, it would be too big a price to pay."

Wang is known as a reformer – he spent five years as the top Communist official in Guangdong, arguably China's most liberal province – and his gloves-off, non-PC sense of humour dovetails nicely with newly anointed president Xi Jinping's efforts to boost the country's confidence in global affairs.

China's state-run media giddily embraced Wang's remarks – the China News Service dedicated a "special report" to his diplomatic humour. On Weibo, China's version of Twitter, the state-run Global Times newspaperposted his Murdoch quip next to a laughing face emoticon.

There's nothing new about regional diplomatic schmoozing edging into uncomfortably personal terrain. Last Friday, Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, told Chinese premier Li Keqiang that the two countries' relationship is "higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey".

Li responded by thanking Sharif for his "deep affection for the people of China".

But while web censorship isn't always a perfect gauge of the government's thinking, it suggests that in matters of diplomatic romance, authorities don't want the public discourse to stray too far from the party line.

A summit meeting between US president Barack Obama and Xi last month seemed to inspire a slew of less-than-strictly-platonic interpretations. One viral image on Sina Weibo juxtaposed a photo of Xi and Obama at the summit with a cartoon showing the children's book characters Winnie the Pooh and Tigger walking hand-in-hand. The almost identical images inspired thousands of comments, many about the "lovable" qualities of China's new leader.

Yet within hours, censors had taken the pictures down.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[Photo of Wang Yang via Wikimedia commons.]