Barack Obama

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

On November 19, 2009, I posted a story here at China Beat that I titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Boring.” The article was a review of Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to China, during which he held a somewhat bland town hall meeting in Shanghai, performed the de rigueur tours of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and met with Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders behind closed doors. All in all, Obama’s trip seemed to be little more than an icebreaker, a quick and innocuous introduction to one of America’s most important strategic partners. But that was last year.

Fifty-one weeks later, Obama again made a November visit to Asia, though his itinerary on this four-country trip didn’t include a stop in China. That isn’t to say, however, that China wasn’t on the president’s mind as he traveled—a fact that was quite clear at several points, never more so than during a news conference at the conclusion of the G-20 meeting in Seoul on Friday. On this occasion, Obama showed none of the restraint that characterized his trip to China last year; instead, he spoke out against Chinese undervaluation of the renminbi and criticized unnamed “countries with large surpluses” that rely on an export-oriented growth strategy. Here’s the section of Obama’s remarks that’s been getting the most attention:

I’ve been very clear and persistent since I came into office that we welcome China’s rise; we think the fact that China has grown as remarkably as it has, has lifted millions of people out of poverty, and that is ultimately good for the world and good for America—because it means that China has the opportunity to be a responsible partner. It means that China can be an enormous market for the United States, for Korea, for countries throughout Asia and around the world. And it’s just good to get people out of poverty and give them opportunity.

What I’ve also said is that precisely because of China’s success, it’s very important that it act in a responsible fashion internationally. And the issue of the RNB [sic] is one that is an irritant not just to the United States, but is an irritant to a lot of China’s trading partners and those who are competing with China to sell goods around the world. It is undervalued. And China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued.

(Full text of Obama’s remarks is available here.)

Obama actually spent relatively little time on the topic of China during the press conference, but his newly assertive tone regarding the renminbi has been the among most attention-getting aspects of the entire 10-day trip. Obama met with warm receptions in both India and Indonesia before traveling on to Seoul for the G-20, where tensions quickly arose over not only the renminbi but also questions such as global trade imbalances and American stimulus plans. As Louisa Lim of NPR notes, Obama’s outspokenness in the press conference contrasts with his inability to get such strong language about the currency issue into the communiqué the G-20 hammered out during the summit. In the end, Lim says, “This trip was designed to reward America’s natural allies in Asia; it’s served to highlight the limits of American power.” It also served to highlight the growing importance of Chinese strength in Asia; that’s certainly not a new development, but the looming presence of the PRC during Obama’s trip made many of his actions in both India and Indonesia appear specifically calibrated to counter Chinese influence in the region (see this report at McClatchy and “The elephant outside the room” at The Economist for more).

Despite Obama’s strong words in Seoul, the U.S. and China are clearly not going to shut each other out any time soon. This was the message of a music video circulating online last week, the “US-Sino Currency Rap Battle” produced by Taiwan’s Next Media Animation. In the words of the song’s annoyingly catchy chorus, “They’re not enemies / They’re frenemies / With co-dependent economies.” But these “frenemies” seem to be moving toward a rough patch in their relationship—one that could make Hu Jintao’s scheduled January visit to the U.S. anything but boring.

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There have been plenty of news stories recently about today’s meeting between Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. Here are some suggestions for further reading (and viewing):

1. Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University is interviewed by Deborah Jerome of the Council of Foreign Relations:

All American presidents since 1990 have met with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama’s scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp warning from China that the visit will undermine U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated about this visit than it has been previously?

There is certainly a higher level of angry rhetoric from Beijing. . . . But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far more disturbed by the previous presidential meeting, President George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in October 2007—because that was the first and only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for the last six months or so has been not to stop the meeting, which their experts knew was impossible, but to get it to be private. That’s been achieved, because the meeting will take place in a private room, the White House Map Room. But that’s an obscure issue of protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of difference to Beijing officials but none to American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting. For China, the symbolic details matter, but for Tibetans in Tibet, it’s only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

2. “Tibet Is No Shangri-La,” writes Christina Larson at Foreign Policy:

The political and territorial stakes are serious, and not likely to be resolved anytime soon. But there is also a gauziness with which the region and the man who represents it to the West are most often discussed. Even in the fast-paced and cynical 21st century, talk of Tibet still elicits a 19th century aura of romanticism and melancholy. In general, sentiment veils critical thinking. In the case of Tibet, our collective nostalgia, inexplicably, for a place most of us have never seen lends itself to a striking absolutism with which we discuss the place, its people, its present condition, its future destiny. While most things in life are murky and grey, the Tibet of our imagination is pristine, and the lines between good and evil are as clear as a mountain stream.

3. We’ve mentioned Donald Lopez’s “7 Things You Don’t Know About Tibet” before, but it seems appropriate to call attention to it again this week:

Tibetans have never heard of their famous religious text The Tibetan Book of the Dead. What is known in the West by that title is a short Tibetan work, the Bardo Thodol, meaning “Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State.” It is a mortuary text, read over a dead or dying person to help him or her escape from rebirth or, if that’s not possible, to have a good rebirth in the next life. It is an example of a genre of similar texts used in one of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It became the most famous Tibetan text in the West after Walter Wentz, a wealthy American Theosophist, traveled to India in the 1920s, and commissioned a translation. Wentz then added his own commentary, transforming the Tibetan mortuary text into a Theosophical treatise. The text has lived on through several reincarnations, including one by Timothy Leary that uses the Tibetan text as a “flight plan” for an acid trip. Leary’s book (The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead) is best remembered for the line “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream,” which was lifted by John Lennon for the song “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver.

4. At Time, Jeff Wasserstrom discusses the current Sino-U.S. relationship and declares it “Too Big to Fail”:

While Washington and Beijing seem very much at odds just now, we shouldn’t let their current state blind us to how intertwined they have become, nor to parallels between America’s rise at the start of the last century and China’s at the start of this one. Whether they like it or realize it, their relationship is truly one thing too big to fail.

5. “The Caucus” blog of the New York Times has a short video assembled by Ben Werschkul of statements Obama and the White House have made regarding Tibet during the past year — all of which are “notable for their caution.”

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With all of the attention generated by Barack Obama’s speed-touring of Beijing sites, we became interested in finding out a bit about previous presidential sightseeing itineraries. There were some useful summaries on the web of what Nixon and company had said about the Great Wall, but what about the Forbidden City as a presidential tourist attraction, past and present? This complex of palaces, which are the subject of a recent book by Geremie Barmé that we’ve praised already on this blog, would seem a more problematic place to include on the go-to lists for foreign dignitaries, given its links to the Qing Dynasty, whose last emperor was topped by the 1911 Revolution — still celebrated as a prelude to the 1949 one that brought the Communist Party to power. Here are two vignettes that people in the know have said we can share with our readers to fill in some blanks:

Sheila Melvin is a Stanford-based writer whose books include Rhapsody in Red: How Classical Music Became Chinese, which she co-wrote with her conductor-husband Jindong Cai. She offers this brief account of a day in 1972 that her spouse remembers fondly:

My husband was a middle school student in Beijing during Nixon’s first visit to China and by chance his class was scheduled to visit the Forbidden City on the same day as Nixon a day on which there was also a huge snowfall. My husband and about 200 other students got to the Forbidden City and were told it was closed, but then somebody decided that they should make it look “normal” for Nixon by allowing at least a few people inthey handpicked 50 students, including my husband. (He claims he was chosen because of his sartorial style, a light blue “qingnian zhuang” not commonly seen during the Cultural Revolution.) He and his select few classmates had the entire Forbidden City to themselves in a snowfall. They never saw Nixon, but it was a magical moment for them all.

Anne Marie Brady, a China specialist based at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, whose works include the aptly-titled (for the purposes of her comments) Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic, adds this to our understanding of the subject:

According to a 1979 waishi (foreign affairs) handbook, a typical visit for a high level VIP should include taking them to both traditional tourist spots such as the Forbidden City, in addition to letting them see sites more in keeping with China’s revolutionary ideology such as the Beijing Coking Plant, the No. 1 State Cotton Mill, the Beijing General Petroleum Chemical Works, and the Beijing No. 3 Deaf-Mute School. Visitors could also expect to be given extensive briefings on production figures and the current political line. President Obama and his team should count themselves lucky…

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President Obama’s trip to China is now in the past, though there might be a postscript when the U.N. Climate Change Conference convenes in Copenhagen next month, as how China and the U.S. would cooperate (or not) in dealing with environmental issues was a major topic during Obama’s meetings with Chinese leaders. As a final look back at Obama’s first trip to China, here are several readings that put his visit in a larger context:

1. Timothy Garton Ash writes about “Two Ways for West to Meet China”, arguing that Western countries could choose between two strategies when dealing with China:

The first approach, which China’s rulers like, is for the West to say: “You have your traditions, your civilisation, your culture, your values, and we have ours. In a world of very diverse sovereign great powers, the only basis for international order is mutual respect. Inside our respective frontiers, we do it our way, you do it yours. Only thus can we avoid Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’.”

. . . The other approach, which I support, is for the West to start the search for a genuinely universal universalism, in a dialogue with China and other non-Western emerging powers. This could not be a purely Western-defined universalism, with the implication that all the essential universal truths were discovered in the West some time between, say, 1650 and 1800, and all other countries simply have to follow suit.

Rather, it would be a universalism which says something like this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, but maybe you’d like to suggest some other ones. We say life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; perhaps you’d like to make the case for harmony, security or transgenerational community. Then let us compare the aspirations, and the social realities, in the cool light of reason.”

2. This opinion piece at the Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) compares Obama’s China trip to Richard Nixon’s journey there in 1972.

3. Looking back to the 1870s, China Beatniks Maura Cunningham and Jeff Wasserstrom posted this article at History News Network, detailing similarities and contrasts between Ulysses S. Grant’s meetings with Qing officials and Obama’s talks with Hu Jintao.

4. George Will also went back to the 1870s, but only to mention in passing that Grant, like Obama, met the Japanese emperor during his Asia trip. Will questions Obama’s designation as the first “Pacific President,” pointing out that many Commanders-in-Chief before him have been deeply engaged with the Pacific Rim.

5. Finally, James Fallows has been holding a virtual Obama-palooza over at his Atlantic blog, posting not only a six-part series on coverage of Obama’s visit (“Manufactured Failure”), but also several other articles on the perceived failure of Obama’s Asia trip.


By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Barack Obama spent fewer than three days in China, but his first trip there has been a week-long story in the news world, as countless journalists, academics, and pundits have shared their thoughts about what this visit could do for U.S.-China relations. Now that the president has left the PRC, how did it all go? Obama Administration officials are speaking highly of it, claiming that Obama was forceful in private meetings with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese leadership. And perhaps the devil is in the details, as political scientist David Shambaugh says, speaking favorably of the joint statement of cooperation that Obama and Hu issued on Tuesday, which he thinks sets a positive tone for future Sino-U.S. relations.

However, most of us weren’t privy to the Obama-Hu conversations, and my reading of the joint statement is somewhat more pessimistic than Shambaugh’s. On the whole, I’d say that Obama’s trip was anti-climactic, and even a bit disappointing. While most commentators didn’t really expect that Obama would accomplish all that much during his time in China, a survey of what happened on the trip, and what’s been written about it, reinforces the general sense among China watchers that very little got done. Below, a review of Obama-in-China, both the trip itself and the discussion surrounding it:

The Good:
1. The town hall meeting in Shanghai took place on Monday as planned. At one point last week, we were hearing stories that both American and Chinese officials had reservations about the event, and there were rumors that it might be canceled due to conflicts over who could attend and whether or not the meeting would be broadcast in China. Thanks to what I assume was a weekend full of closed-door negotiations, the town hall went ahead as scheduled. If it hadn’t, Obama’s trip would have been even less interesting — and both sides would have appeared unwilling to cooperate with the other. As for Obama’s performance in the town hall meeting itself . . . well, see below for more, under “The Bad.”

2. My Google Reader has been full of great writing this week. A trip like Obama’s generates a lot of press, and those of us in the China field have been feasting on it. A few of the pieces I like the most are Isabel Hilton, on internet censorship in China (hat tip to China Digital Times); Paul French, comparing Obama’s arrival in Shanghai to that of Ulysses S. Grant when he visited China in the late 1870s; and all of the short takes that Evan Osnos has posted at his New Yorker blog. Yale Global Online has two thoughtful pieces about Obama in Asia, and there are some interesting essays at The Daily Beast — one by Peter Beinart on the shifting U.S.-China dynamics that few people seem to have noticed, and another by Richard Wolffe summing up “Obama’s Bad Trip.”

3. While nothing spectacular happened, at least the trip went smoothly. Sometimes, that’s enough — we shouldn’t discount the importance of maintaining the status quo, which I think is more or less what Obama managed to do on his first visit to China. Ian Johnson speaks in a video at the Wall Street Journal’s site about the somewhat ambiguous nature of Obama’s relationship with the Chinese leadership, but also points to the fact that the two sides have agreed on a “framework” for future cooperation on some of the world’s biggest issues. Obama has either three or seven more years to move the U.S.-China relationship forward, and the uneventful nature of his visit means that’s still a possibility.

The Bad
The town hall meeting itself (video of the full event available at the White House website). My feelings about the town hall were initially somewhat mixed, but I’ve come down on the side of being less than impressed. Although I knew before the meeting that it was going to be a carefully scripted affair, and therefore didn’t expect anything terribly interesting to occur, I still think it could have gone better. I cringed when Obama quoted a “Chinese proverb” in his opening remarks — really, isn’t there a way to ban this tired speechwriting standby? — and groaned when he called on Ambassador Jon Huntsman to ask a painfully pointed question about internet censorship. Given that the “should we be able to use Twitter freely?” query was pre-planned, Obama showed a surprising inability to answer it in a coherent manner. “I’m a big supporter of non-censorship” probably wasn’t the sound bite that Obama wanted to stand out from the hour-long town hall, but it’s representative of the stilted manner in which he tiptoed around issues. It was clear, I thought, that Obama wanted to talk about topics like Tibet and human rights, but held himself back from taking a hard stance on anything that could cause a confrontation with his Chinese counterparts.

The Boring:
Pretty much everything else. The most potentially dramatic event, the town hall meeting, occurred on Day 1 of Obama’s trip; the rest of his time in China was divided between meetings with state leaders and sightseeing at the standard can’t-miss spots, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

In the absence of interesting stories, the trivial took over. A few examples: The students who attended the town hall were hand-picked by Communist Party officials — maybe I’m a cynic, but I never expected otherwise. Obama sped through his tour of the Forbidden City — well, he’s a busy man. And Jon Huntsman called those of us who aspire to be China experts “morons.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that joke sounded funnier in his head.

As Obama wraps up his Asian tour and heads back to the U.S., what will be remembered about this first China trip? Most likely, the answer is “nothing.” There weren’t any standout moments — good or bad — and Obama missed several opportunities to send a clear message to activists in China that he supports their work (check out this “Room for Debate” blog at the New York Times for more on that issue). Instead, he seemed to drift genially from one staged event to the next, politely toured a few famous national landmarks, and met with his half-brother for five minutes.

Few know what was discussed in private meetings with Chinese leaders, but no impressive public announcements emerged to indicate that the U.S. and China will be collaborating on anything major in the coming years. Perhaps, however, this was the Obama Administration’s goal all along: to pull off a short, polite visit that didn’t make any waves but didn’t raise any problems in the Sino-U.S. relationship, either. If that’s the case, mission accomplished.


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