January 2011

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by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Except in the Windy City itself, where Hu Jintao heads today and will spend tomorrow, the reporting and speculative commentary on the Chinese leader’s second visit to the United States has tended to focus on it’s just-concluding Washington leg. To me, though, the stop in Chicago seemed from the start the most potentially interesting and novel part of Hu’s trip. After all, this is the first time that a visit to Chicago, an economically important crossroads city with a colorful history and famous architectural landmarks, has figured in the itinerary of the head of China’s Communist Party.

Novelties matter in part because when a new thing takes place during one U.S.-China summit, a matching event often occurs during the next one. After Jiang Zemin gave a speech in 1997 at Harvard, for example, it seemed only natural that when Bill Clinton went to the PRC next, in 1998, he should give a talk at Peking University, a Beijing institution that likes to call itself the Harvard of China. So, it is worth asking this question now: What would be the most symbolically appropriate or interesting Chicago-like stop that could be part of Barack Obama’s schedule, if he makes another presidential trip to China?

To answer this question, I’ve prepared a little list of five possibilities for a second city (Beijing’s got to be visited) that Obama could go to on his next trip, which would be a match for Hu’s 2010 stay in America’s Second City. These options range from the sensible and plausible to the intriguing but hopelessly far-fetched:

1) Chongqing. This is a booming Chinese metropolis, with a striking physical landscape due to a location on steep hills that shoot up beside the Yangzi River. One similarity to Chicago is that it has a famous and politically ambitious mayor, Bo Xilai, who, like the Windy City’s latest Daley-in-charge, is the son of a famous political figure (his dad Bo Yibo took part in the Long March). Another appeal of Chongqing for a presidential visit is its historic significance for U.S.-China relations, as it was the wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s government back when Chinese and American armies were allied in the fight against Japan. The city’s even sometimes referred to as “Chicago on the Yangtze”—the title of a smart recent article by Christina Larson (it’s subtitle: “Welcome to Chongqing, the biggest city you’ve never heard of”—a bit misleading as there are big cities, including the next two on my list, that are probably a good deal less well known in the U.S. than Chongqing, even if some Americans are more likely to recognize the place name when rendered the old way as “Chungking”).

2) Wuhan. This city is far down the Yangzi (Yangtze) from Chongqing, which is in China’s far west. Location-wise, it’s a better counterpart to Chicago, in the sense of being smack dab in the middle of a massive continent-sized country. In addition, the 1911 Revolution began with mutinies in Wuhan, and brought to power a president, Sun Yat-sen, who, like Obama, was fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln and spent part of his youth going to school in Hawaii. Downsides include the weather (at least for a summer Summit: it’s called one of China’s “furnace” cites for a reason) and the lack of either knock-out physical scenery (a la Chongqing) or world class buildings (another appealing option for photo ops).

3) Dongguan. Here, we move into still less probable territory, for this overgrown factory town in the Pearl River Delta is not linked to any famous moment in Chinese history or the history of U.S.-China relation. Nor does it register as an important metropolis in the internal politics of the Chinese Communist Party, contain any well-known architectural landmarks suitable for photo ops or sightseeing, or have a famous mayor. (You won’t even find the name of this city, which lies just south of Guangzhou, aka Canton, on some maps–including the one provided in the CIA World Factbook reproduced here, which gets larger if you click on it.) Donguan is, however, a metropolis where many of the goods bound for American big box stores are made, and so there’s a match to the Chicago stopover by Hu including a focus on expanding economic ties between the two countries. In addition, a particularly interesting and powerful book on Dongguan, Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China brings up a Chicago parallel. Chang writes that the young women she interviewed often had life stories that reminded her of those of the heroines in Theodore Dreisser novels. And the eponymous protagonist of Dreisser’s best known work of fiction, Sister Carrie, traced the trials and tribulations of a country girl who became a working woman in Chicago.

4) Lhasa. This is the most outlandish idea of all, but Tibet’s most famous city would in some ways be best match of all for a place Obama could go next time he was in the PRC, simply to return the favor that Hu has done him by going the American city that played the central role in his own early political career. For in the 1980s, while Obama was cutting his teeth politically as a community organizer in Chicago, Hu began his ascent to the top ranks of the Chinese Communist Party as a Beijing’s representative in Tibet. Of course, what he was involved in was very different from community organizing, as his most important act in Tibet was to spearhead the harsh repressive campaign that “restored order” there after protests broke out in Lhasa and other Tibetan cities in 1989, not long before the start of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that captured the attention of television viewers around the world.

5. Shanghai. This final possibility doesn’t pose the kind of political problem that Lhasa does. And like Chicago, it’s got links to a World’s Fair (since the 2010 Expo was just held there), has striking neo-classical buildings built early in the 1900s, and is associated with a notorious gangster of the last century (Shanghai’s “Big Eared Du” is as well known in China as Al Capone is in the U.S.).

The problem is that Obama went to Shanghai last time. Surely he wouldn’t want his second visit to be a complete rerun? And as fond as I am of Shanghai, the Chinese city I’ve visited and written about most, I too would hate to see him return there. For news coverage of presidential travels offers an opportunity to expand the store of images that come to mind when Americans think about China, and there’s a recurring tendency, despite the ramped up reporting on the PRC, for people here to underestimate how diverse and varied that country is. So, if Lhasa’s too dicey, Dongguan’s too new, and Wuhan’s too lacking in photo op backdrops, here’s hoping that Chongqing gets the nod.

Karl, Rebecca E. Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2010. xii, 200 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Jeremy Tai

Mao Zedong may no longer be the sublime object of desire in China, but in recent decades his image has been continuously invoked and consumed in countless guises – both familiar and new – ranging from pop art portraits to the ubiquitous face of Chinese banknotes, from Cultural Revolution kitsch to the ObaMao souvenirs currently found in tourist traps around China. The reproduction of Mao in his various postmodern manifestations suggests a loss of meaning and depoliticization; at the same time, however, the deep-seated clash between sentimental and polemical cultural representations also makes clear that there is still much at stake in the question of his significance. In particular, following Li Zhisui’s The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician (1994), biographies have become the preferred medium amongst English-language publications for depicting Mao’s life and worldviews. Li set in motion a flood of research into the leader’s private life and a broad shift away from the revolutionary presented in Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China (1938) and toward the monster portrayed in Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s controversial Mao: The Unknown Story (2005). Followers of the cult of personality were well-known during the Cultural Revolution for religious performances of love for their savior, but detractors have been no less willing to get intimate with Mao – though they have inverted the values of hagiography to feature spectacular tales of infidelity, cruelty, and misrule. This spotlight on the deficiencies of Mao’s character seems complicit with the naturalization of private self-interest in postsocialist China.

In Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World (Duke University Press, 2010), Rebecca Karl provokes both China scholars and the general public to reassess the Chairman once again. Karl’s book departs from the tendencies to either depoliticize Mao or sensationalize his private life for popular consumption by recentering contemporary discussions around his public role in making revolution. She attempts “to reattach Mao to a historical moment of crisis demanding critique and action” (p. x). Even though Karl does not leave Mao’s private life untouched, she explicitly distinguishes her approach from the biographical genre, characterizing it instead as a history modeled after Georg Lukács’s Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought (1924). Lukács wrote his commemoration shortly after Lenin’s death and sought to set his subject’s thought within a historical framework. Similarly, Karl skillfully weaves together Mao’s ideas and the historical milieu that made possible their conceptualization in a well-written, balanced and grounded narrative accessible to non-specialists and suitable for use in undergraduate courses.

The book is divided into ten chapters, most of which span about a decade each, and covers the early Mao and the late Mao with equal attention. Rather than documenting life-long expressions of an a priori essence, Karl considers Mao’s formative experiences, arguing that his early views and actions “did not indicate the political theorist that he was later to become” (p. 8). Her book begins with Mao’s introduction to Western learning and anti-dynastic thought amidst the Qing dynasty’s humiliating defeats at the hands of Western and Japanese powers. She then traces the major turning points in the development of Mao’s understanding and practice of revolution. In 1918, Mao first became acquainted with Marxism in reading groups at Beijing University sponsored by Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu, but his writings from that year do not indicate a momentous impact (p. 14). It was after exchanging letters with his former classmate Cai Hesen, who was writing from France, that Mao declared his support for Bolshevist Communism in the early 1920s. Later, his work at the Peasant Movement Training Institute in 1925 convinced him of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry. The Nationalists’ white terror in Shanghai on April 1927 initiated a period of experimentation with land redistribution, the turn to guerilla warfare, and an important break with the Stalin-dominated Comintern. Mao declared the Chinese Communist Party’s independence from Moscow at the Zunyi Conference in 1935. After resettling in Yan’an at the end of the Long March, Mao formulated his theories regarding protracted war, new democracy, literature and art, and the mass line.

Drawing from a rich collection of Mao’s writings, Karl takes his contributions to socialist theory and practice seriously. In her account, revolution is not merely a tool serving Mao’s bent for power, but rather a genuine response to material conditions. Moreover, Karl reevaluates the distinctiveness of Mao Zedong Thought. First, she believes Maoism to be more than the sinification of Marxism as suggested by other scholars. Instead of a one-way movement that reinforces the notion that Marxism is always already Western, she suggests a synthesis and says, “It is more appropriate to see Mao Zedong Thought as the product of Mao’s simultaneous interpretation of Chinese history and China’s present through Marxist categories and the interpretation of Marxist categories through the specific historic situation of China” (p. 53). Second, Maoism always assumes revolution to be a lived experience of everyday life, rather than an abstract body of knowledge imposed by distant elites. For Karl, the concept of voluntarism – construed in opposition to economic determinism – is imprecise. More than sheer will, Mao’s concept of politics is inextricably tied to quotidian existence and the struggle to transform the structures of social life (p. 58).

Karl treats Mao’s emergence as the leading figure of the Communist Party in a judicious manner, without skimping on discussions of purges, rectification campaigns, dogmatism, and the cult of Mao. Certainly, Mao may have become a statesman but he did not take the seizure of state power to be the ultimate goal of revolutionary mass mobilization. Karl highlights the persistent contradiction between bureaucracy and mass politics, foreshadowed in Yan’an and later shaping the dynamics of the Maoist era (p. 60, 84, 93). The unevenness in the social relations of production engendered under socialism strained relations between Mao and the rest of the Party leadership, with the former eventually advocating struggle against the latter (p. 96). Karl believes the Cultural Revolution should be read not as Mao’s desire to take state power for himself but “an attempt to seize politics – the power of mass culture and speech for revolution” (p. 117). Rather than a top-down orchestration by Mao, the Cultural Revolution was also a mobilization of people dismayed with the direction of the country and the Party six years into the post-Great Leap Forward restoration (p. 118). According to Karl, although interpretations have been divergent, what is universally agreed about the Cultural Revolution is its failure to deliver on its promise. The mass politics of workers and rebel students was ultimately betrayed by the People’s Liberation Army (p. 119, 133-134). Following a nuanced presentation of the Maoist era, the book concludes with the about-faces witnessed after Mao’s death during the reform era. In what Karl considers “the most un-Maoist of all developments in post-Mao China,” politics has become monopolized by the state while economics and social development are now monopolized by market-defined success (p. 181).

At first glance, another book on Mao could seem to return us to the history of great men, but Karl is attentive to the unequal status afforded women in the Party and the continued burden of household reproductive labor despite the rhetoric concerning women’s liberation. Her feminist analysis points to not only the rendering of women comrades like Mao’s first wife Yang Kaihui into menial and maternal roles, but also the criticisms Ding Ling leveled in Yan’an and during the Great Leap Forward, both of which led to the writer’s forced reeducation (p. 66-67, 105). As for model dramas, women were featured as title characters, but it was always an enlightened male Party leader that guided these women to revolutionary consciousness and action (p. 148). Throughout the book, Karl’s critical perspective is aided by interludes, composed of interviews with Wang Yuanhua, once an underground Communist cultural activist in Shanghai during the wartime 1940s, discussing his discomfort with Mao’s “Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature” and the anti-Hu Feng campaign in 1955; independent writer Sabu Kohso on how he came to be aware of Mao and the Cultural Revolution as a student radical in Japan; and the Chinese scholar Wang Hui on post-Mao politics.

Overall, Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century World shares a common thread with Karl’s earlier Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (2002), that is, the reconceptualization of the world in which China is participating. These two texts demonstrate historical identifications with the emergent nationalist and anti-colonial movements in the non-Euro-American-Japanese world after the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, the struggle against the global situation of fascism and imperialism during the War of Resistance (p. 57), and the third world represented by the unaligned nations of the Bandung conference in 1955 (p. 89). In 1971, the People’s Republic of China was voted into the United Nations. For Karl, this event marked “the long rise of the PRC from revolutionary internationalist icon to bulwark of the established global order” (p. 151). Against the established global order and the “harmonious society” (hexie shehui) of the Hu Jintao regime, Karl’s book reminds us that revolutionaries in the recent past staked out dreams of alternative worlds to the present. Recent cultural representations have increasingly cast Mao’s life-long project as an aberration, thereby facilitating “disutopia” – what Slavoj Žižek described as “not just the temporary absence of Utopia, but the political celebration of the end of social dreams” (p. xi). Rather than returning to Mao or even redeeming him, Karl uses the late leader to challenge her readers to think beyond our complacency with the order and normalcy of global capitalism.

Jeremy Tai is a graduate student in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

China Beat very quietly celebrated its third birthday last Friday, making the site now almost a senior citizen in the constantly enlarging arena of China blogs. While we’re very happy with the work we’ve been doing for the past three years—and we hope China Beat readers and contributors are equally pleased with our efforts—it’s always nice to shake things up a bit. For that reason, China Beat is now undertaking a collaborative venture with the journal Twentieth-Century China, a move that we hope will continue to bring together the worlds of online and print publishing.

What does this mean? You won’t see any significant changes to the China Beat site, and subscribers to TCC will continue to receive print copies of the journal. So for the most part, things will continue as normal. But TCC will soon begin publishing book reviews at China Beat (the first one a review by Jeremy Tai of Rebecca Karl’s Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World), and there will also be occasional posts calling attention to the content appearing in new issues of TCC.

Twentieth-Century China, the official journal of the Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China, was founded in 1983 (originally as Republican China) and publishes scholarly articles in history and the social sciences, covering topics ranging from the late Qing through the turn of the 21st century. A quick glance at the TCC editorial board shows that there’s already quite a bit of synergy between China Beat and the journal: board members include a number of people who have written for or been mentioned at China Beat, including Geremie Barmé, Prasenjit Duara, Elizabeth Perry, and Peter Zarrow.

The journal’s side of this collaboration is headed by TCC Chief Editor Jay Carter (who has also written for China Beat in the past few months) and book review editor Margherita Zanasi, who will be overseeing the content published here under the TCC imprint. So, as China Beat enters its fourth year (wow!), I’m very pleased to welcome the TCC editors and readers to our site. This is something of an experiment in the realm of publishing, and I look forward to seeing both publications explore the new directions opened up by such a collaboration.

By Scott Kennedy

Preparations for Wednesday’s state visit by Hu Jintao have been underway for several months. Most of that time was spent negotiating over what deals would be reached, whether there would be a joint statement, and what food would be served. I’m particularly interested to see: 1) Whether Chinese first lady Liu Yongqing will eat the standard fare put on the table as everyone else. She typically travels with her own chef and food; and 2) Whether the American media will get a good photo of the back of Hu Jintao’s head to determine once and for all if he has a bald spot. Chinese media are forbidden to ever shoot him from behind. CNN, please…

In actuality, one of the most interesting turns of the past week has been the contrasting positioning the American and Chinese sides have adopted.

President Obama sent out his four department chiefs in charge of foreign policy to give China-specific speeches. Secretary of Defense Gates, Secretary of Treasury Geithner, Secretary of Commerce Locke, and Secretary of State Clinton all sang the same tune: The United States and China are very different, and China needs to adapt its behavior, if not its views, in order for it to be accepted as a member of mainstream international society.

Secretary Gates focused on China’s military build-up and the PLA’s limited transparency, while Geither and Locke focused on a variety of Chinese market barriers, from the Renminbi’s value to indigenous innovation policies that put American firms at a disadvantage in China and elsewhere. But it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address, the last of the four, which brought all of the various components together in one coherent and complete message.

Her statement had a clear logical coherence to it: The US and China are different > The United States is the steward of international society > International society is built on multilateral institutions > China is still not a full member of international society > China must change its security, economic, and human rights policy to come into compliance with its international obligations, which is for its own good and the good of the rest of the world > Mutual trust can only be built by China taking concrete steps to adopt these changes.

A few examples:

The US and China have differences:

“We are two complex nations with very different histories, with profoundly different political systems and outlooks.”

“To keep our relationship on a positive trajectory, we also have to be honest about our differences. We will address them firmly and decisively as we pursue the urgent work we have to do together. And we have to avoid unrealistic expectations that can be disappointed. This requires steady effort over time to expand the areas where we cooperate and to narrow the areas where we diverge, while holding firm to our respective values.”

Trust depends on action:

“The success of the relationship depends on its ability to deliver positive results to the people of both our nations, first and foremost, but also to the rest of the world.”

China must act in the context of international institutions:

“Embracing the obligations that come with being a 21st century power will help to realize a future that will give the Chinese people even more, in fact, unimagined opportunities. But that means accepting a share of the burden of solving common problems, abiding by and helping to shape a rules-based international order.”

In its stress on differences and the importance of multilateral institutions, the Obama Administration’s tone is quite different from that of his predecessor. Certainly the US has not forsaken power politics, but Secretary Clinton’s speech was entirely consistent with the liberal internationalist school of international relations theory. The final giveaway was her not so subtle attack against realism:

“In the 21st century, it does not make sense to apply zero-sum 19th century theories of how major powers interact. We are moving through uncharted territory. We need new ways of understanding the shifting dynamics of the international landscape, a landscape marked by emerging centers of influence, but also by non-traditional, even non-state actors, and the unprecedented challenges and opportunities created by globalization. This is a fact that we believe is especially applicable to the U.S-China relationship. Our engagement – indeed, I would say our entanglement – can only be understood in the context of this new and more complicated landscape.”

Why has the US decided to emphasize differences in the run-up to the visit?

For one, in the wake of the financial crisis China appears to have calculated that it could be more assertive in a number of policy areas, and this newfound confidence was exhibited across the policy spectrum, and highlighted the different positions of the US and China. In the last year it has become clear China overstepped. That has led to a backlash by China’s neighbors, and the US has capitalized on this uneasiness. Its relationships with countries around China, save North Korea, are increasingly robust. Hence, the US is surprisingly in a position of strength against China.

For two, although President Obama’s domestic political standing has risen of late, he cannot be seen to coddle the Chinese on any issue lest he make himself vulnerable to attacks about being weak on defense, not defending American jobs, or sacrificing American values. If the visit were in Beijing, American rhetoric may not have been as strident.

And for three, President Hu’s political fortunes are most assuredly on the downswing. He has another 21 months as Party Secretary and 26 months as president, and the clock is ticking. Although he has led China to be more assertive, he also likely does not want to be seen as having wrecked the relationship. The US side may be gambling that the best defense against a Chinese leader on the way out is a good offense.

The Obama Administration’s approach not only differs from W’s but also from that of the Chinese side. In response to written questions from the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Hu Jintao stressed the common interests of both countries. His grammar was the reverse of Secretary Clinton’s: We may have some differences, but our common interests are so clear that the two countries must cooperate. Moreover, his description of China took it as a given that China is a leading global power and a central member of the international system, and such standing is not conditional on US approval:

“China and the United States have major influence in international affairs and shoulder important responsibilities in upholding world peace and promoting common development. Under the new circumstances, the common interests of our two countries have been growing and areas of cooperation expanding. There is great potential for our mutually beneficial cooperation both in advancing Asia-Pacific regional cooperation and in improving global economic governance and promoting sustainable growth of the world economy; both in expanding cooperation in economy and trade and in strengthening cooperation in new areas like new energy sources, clean energy, infrastructure development and aviation and space; and both in fighting terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and in meeting challenges like natural disasters, food security and major communicable diseases.”

It will be fascinating to see if the two sides’ pre-summit approaches carry over to the visit itself. Not only will I be watching to see what is on Ms. Liu’s plate, I’ll be anxiously listening to the toasts of two presidents. Ganbei!

Scott Kennedy is Associate Professor of Political Science and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. He is editor of Beyond the Middle Kingdom: Comparative Perspectives on China’s Capitalist Transformation (Stanford University Press, forthcoming March 2011). This post also appears at The China Track.

By Ron Javers

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.

Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!

—Nina Simone, 1964

Though the lyric was written for and recorded by Nina Simone in 1964, most Americans who remember it at all probably remember best the 1965 cover by Eric Burdon and the Animals, with its twangy guitar riffs and R&B-fired shriek of entreaty.

The tune was, of course, a big hit in that part of the American Century that was the 60s. By 1964, America’s war-fueled economy was roaring and Chinese leaders were worried that as the Vietnam conflict spiraled out of control China itself might be invaded. Chairman Mao actually ordered a crash development plan—he was so good at these—for expanding industry and transportation in Southwest China, where the populace might retreat if they saw U.S. soldiers coming across the borders. Such was the pressure from the increasingly restive Soviets on one side and from the Americans on the other that by October 1964 China had designed and tested its very own atomic bomb. Don’t let me be misunderstood, indeed.

Strangely or not, I found myself humming the tune this week while reading various media accounts of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s visit to Beijing. Misunderstandings seemed to abound throughout Gates’s three-day stay in China’s capital, a friendly visit that was intended to help set the tone for China President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next week.

On the first day, as Gates sought to restore an amicable relationship and to restart suspended military-to-military talks between the world’s two largest nations, he hit a stone wall thrown up by his Chinese counterpart, PLA Gen. Liang Guanglie. (“China Snubs U.S. Defense Pitch” was the aggressive headline in The Wall Street Journal.) The General allowed only that he would “study” the U.S. Defense Secretary’s request for new talks after previous efforts had been suspended by China last January over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The general added, rather pointedly: “U.S. arms sales to Taiwan seriously damage China’s core interests. And we do not want to see that happen again.”

After wielding the stick, the general held out a tiny carrot, agreeing to narrower talks at an unspecified time in the first half of this year. China has repeatedly suspended the military-to-military talks over the last ten years, so many times in fact that one begins to wonder what may be the point of such meetings: What do the generals talk about when they talk about peace?

On the second day of his visit, Mr. Gates’s olive branch appeared significantly wilted, as China’s military conducted a surprise test of a new stealth fighter jet. If the tone for President Hu’s upcoming visit was being set, it was at a high-decibel roar, and it begged the question of who was in charge in Beijing—the Chinese President or the PLA? The civilian leadership seemed to be caught off guard at the boldness—bad manners, some would say—in dealing with a foreign guest.

It will be up to President Hu and President Obama to throttle back a bit during their meetings in Washington if both nations are sincere about China’s “peaceful rise.” But some damage clearly has been done, and some concerns have been fueled on the American side, particularly the perennial worry over civilian control of the military in China. In the U.S., where the issue of civilian control has long been settled—the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reports to Secretary Gates, who in turn reports to President Obama—even the protocol of the civilian Gates meeting with the uniformed Guanglie triggers a sort of political dyspepsia.

Tones and tunes may change, but the issues and expectations remain largely the same. An economically and militarily empowered, though politically one-noted China wants enhanced control and security over its territory, rather widely defined, with the status of Taiwan being potentially the first deal breaker. A recession-and-debt embattled U.S. wants to retain its decades-long naval and political hegemony in the Pacific region, and also to uphold its traditional support for political freedom, democracy and national self-determination. These differing desires come at a time of some uncertainty, as the Chinese leadership is slated to undergo orderly change in 2012 when Vice President Xi Jinping becomes China’s president and Vice Premier Li Keqiang becomes premier, and also at the moment of a right-wing political demarche in the U.S. that could conceivably see Mr. Obama as a one-term president.

Add to the above questions about currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, a very dangerous stalemate-by-proxy on the Korean Peninsula, attempts by both China and the U.S. to accommodate allies while provoking each other, particularly India for the U.S. and Pakistan for China, and you have a lengthy mutual agenda that can be barely ticked off next week, let alone seriously addressed.

So opportunities for misunderstandings on both sides abound. Both Mr. Hu and Mr. Obama need to be humming the same tune next week, loose-lipped generals and militant Wall Street Journal headline writers to the contrary. Nor will the final headline on their summit be the defining word on this protean relationship. Wars begin with a single shout; peace and friendship depend upon long, deep and often quiet conversations between allies.

The apposite Chinese proverb here is “One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade.” That, at least, sounds understandable.

Ron Javers, former Executive Editor of Newsweek International, is founder and principal of Ron Javers Worldwide, a media advisory service for companies and other organizations operating in the international sphere.

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